Editor’s note: The following piece was originally published on this website on August 28, 2014, before Labor Day that year, and we like to rerun it on the worker's holidays annually.
Author’s note: these remarks were put together from various sources. A longer article with citations is available on request from the author at
As we enter the Labor Day weekend, many on the left will repeat the myth that Labor Day has no historical significance and is simply a “gift” from capitalist politicians to break up the international solidarity of American workers by providing an alternative to May Day. For many years, I accepted this myth, even while marching with my union comrades in the annual Labor Day Parades in Wilmington, California. Then I learned that the first Labor Day was in 1882, four years BEFORE Haymarket and eight years BEFORE the first international May Day in 1890. How, then, could it have originated as an alternative to May Day? A little historical research revealed a much different, and more complex, story.
This research showed that both Labor Day and May Day grew out of American labor struggles in the 1880s and, surprisingly, that the same man, Peter J. McGuire (1852-1906), who founded the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, is claimed as the “father” of both Labor Day and May Day! However, as the labor movement developed in the 1890s and into the 20th century, different factions favored one rather than the other and began to pit the two against each other.
As Yale historian David Montgomery notes, “Little is gained by calling one holiday real and the other phony. We need to know what both have meant to workers.” Otherwise, an opportunity to educate the U.S. working class about its real history will be lost.
Let us, then, review the intertwined history of Labor Day and May Day within the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class.
The roots of Labor Day go back to the Middle Ages. During the French Revolution a special day in September was set aside as a labor holiday. In nineteenth-century North America, celebrations, picnics, parades, benefits, and demonstrations of various kinds were held to support shorter hours, to help strikers, and for other labor causes. There are reports of early Labor Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada, in 1872 and in Boston in 1878. The first Labor Day in Australia was celebrated in 1856.
According to the research of Jonathan Grossman, however, the American Labor Day holiday grew out of the parade and picnic of the Central Labor Union of New York City on September 5, 1882:
The year 1882 was charged with excitement for organized workers in New York City. On January 30, thousands of workers packed Cooper Union in support of Irish tenants against their British landlords. Under such banners as “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay,” union leaders expressed the unity of labor’s cause throughout the world. Among the participants were Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Committee on Arrangements, who read letters from labor unions from every part of America, and Peter J. McGuire, who “spoke eloquently for half an hour, retiring among continued applause.”
The first Labor Day observance in 1882 at Union Square in New York
Maguire and McGuire, both members of the Socialist Labor Party Club of New York, had proposed the holiday to the Central Labor Union of New York. On Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, about ten thousand workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday and celebrating labor’s international cause. It became an annual event that spread to other cities and states as the movement for a national Labor Day grew. Over the next decade, thirty states recognized Labor Day as a legal holiday so that workers would not have to lose pay in order to celebrate their achievements.
Legal limitation of the working day was an important part of labor’s achievements. Even before the Civil War, the ten-hour day movement had made significant gains. With the rise of industrial capitalism after the Civil War, the eight hour day movement began in earnest. In his chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital, Marx wrote:
Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.
Marx continues to write that on August 16, 1866, the General Congress of labour at Baltimore (August 16th, 1866), “to free the labour of this country from capitalistic slavery,” as the Congress put it, called for a law limiting the working day to eight hours, A few weeks later, the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association at Geneva, passed a similar resolution. Thus, with the leadership of the American working class, the movement of the working-class on both sides of the Atlantic set itself to the struggle for an eight hour day. Marx concludes:
In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.”
Later, Lenin would describe the importance of the eight hour day movement as a time when the workers, as a class, confronted the state as an instrument of the capitalist class.
The demand for an eight-hour day ... is the demand of the whole proletariat, presented, not to individual employers, but to the government as the representative of the whole of the present-day social and political system, to the capitalist class as a whole, the owners of all the means of production.
Responding to working class agitation, Congress passed an eight hour day law in 1868. Federal authorities did not enforce it, however, so labor activists such as McGuire and his friend, Samuel Gompers, realized that it would only be enforced by direct action from the workers themselves.
Poster from the 8-hour day struggle
In 1884, at McGuire’s urging, the national conference of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the organizational forerunner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), passed a resolution establishing May 1, 1886, as the day on which the workers themselves would institute the eight-hour day. May Day was already a day with deep historical roots and rituals such as the May Pole dating back to the Middle Ages. It was a day when workers would make their demands. The modern May Day dates from this action by the American labor movement.
The first May Day was a huge success, According to one source, “In all, the May 1 actions involved 340,000 working people. Of these, 150,000 won shorter hours without striking; 190,000 struck, and 42,000 of the strikers improved their conditions.”
The largest of the May Day demonstrations was in Chicago, where 80,000 workers went on strike, with another 45,000 in New York and 32,000 in Cincinnati. One of the largest strikes was in Chicago at the McCormick Reaper Works, where Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. On May 3, the police attacked, killing at least two workers and wounding many more. The next day, a rally was called for Haymarket Square in Chicago to support the strikers and oppose police brutality.
The rally itself was peaceful, attended by families with children and the Mayor of Chicago himself. But as the crowd was dispersing, the police attacked. A bomb was thrown—no one to this day knows who threw it—and police began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd, killing several civilians and wounding forty more. One officer was killed by the bomb and several more died from their own gun fire. The aftermath is described by a writer for the Industrial Workers of the World:
Aside from the bomb thrower, who was never identified, it was the police, not the anarchists, who perpetrated the violence. Eight anarchists - Albert Parsons, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Louis Lingg - were arrested and convicted of murder, though only three were even present at Haymarket and those three were in full view of all when the bombing occurred. The jury in their trial was comprised of business leaders in a gross mockery of justice similar to the Sacco-Vanzetti case thirty years later, or the trials of AIM and Black Panther members in the seventies. The entire world watched as these eight organizers were convicted, not for their actions, of which all were innocent, but for their political and social beliefs. On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Parsons, Spies, Engel and Fisher were hung to death. Louis Lingg, in his final protest of the state’s claim of authority and punishment, took his own life the night before with an explosive device in his mouth.
The remaining defendants were later pardoned by a new Governor of Illinois and declared innocent of any wrongdoing. A monument to the Haymarket Martyrs was dedicated in 1893, inscribed with the prophetic last words of August Spies: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
Police repression had not killed May Day or the eight hour day movement: In 1888, the AFL defiantly called for another national eight hour strike for May 1, 1890. When AFL leader Samuel Gompers learned that the International Workingmen’s Congress would consider a similar eight-hour day resolution, he arranged for a representative, Hugh McGregor, to travel to the Congress and deliver a letter asking that they also adopt May 1, 1890 for their action. Inspired by the example of the American workers, the Paris Congress adopted the following resolution:
The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labor at its Convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country.
The first International Workers Day on May 1, 1890, was a success, with demonstrations in all the major European cities, including London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Brussels, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Vienna, and Amsterdam, as well as in Cuba, Peru, and Chile, and in cities throughout the United States. In Chicago and New York, slogans included:
- Abolish Wage Slavery,
- No More Bosses — Wage Slavery Must Go.
- The 8-hour day is the next step in the Labor Movement, The Socialist CommonWealth is the Final Aim.
On May Day, 1890, in London, Frederick Engels was writing an introduction to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto, and included the following:
Today, as I write these lines, the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilized as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim: the standard eight-hour working day to be established by legal enactment, as proclaimed by the Geneva Congress of the International in 1866, and again by the Paris Workers’ Congress of 1889. And today’ s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed. If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!
Across the ocean, Gompers (who probably actually deserves the honor of being called the “father” of May Day), noted with satisfaction in 1891:
May 1st of each year is now looked upon by the organized wage-workers and the observing public as a sort of new Independence Day upon which they will every year strike a blow for emancipation and steadily weaken the shackles of wage slavery.
Although originally proposed to be a one-time affair, May Day soon became an annual event. For over a century, every year on May Day, workers on every continent honor the Haymarket Square martyrs and labor’s continuing struggle for an eight hour day.
The struggle to set aside the September Labor Day as a legal holiday never subsided, however. The labor movement has never been a single-issue movement and has always exhibited tensions between different tendencies. By the early 1890s, 30 states and many cities recognized Labor Day as a legal holiday for workers.
Responding to the demands of the labor movement, Congress legalized Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894, after a watershed event in American labor history. On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. On June 26, the American Railroad Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a boycott of all Pullman railway cars, crippling railroad traffic nationwide. To break the strike, the federal government dispatched troops to Chicago who violently suppressed the strike, killing thirty workers in the process.
In the wake of the ensuing massive unrest, Congress finally passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday. No longer would workers have to take an unpaid day off to relax and celebrate their history. Like the weekend, Labor Day was brought to America by the organized action of the labor movement.
More than a dozen strikers were killed in the Pullman Strike of 1894
Both May Day and Labor Day are days of celebration for workers. Both grew out of the struggles of workers for the eight-hour day and better working conditions, and many of the same people and organizations were involved in the origin of both holidays. Unfortunately, conflicts between different tendencies within the labor movement have affected the history of these two labor holidays.
From the very beginning, the U.S. press has described the May Day demonstrators as “wild-eyed agitators” of the “European type,” “radicals, mostly socialists and anarchists,” with “accents and foreign mannerisms predominating.” The Labor Day parade, by contrast, is seen as “a demonstration of the honest American workingman,” “sober, clean quiet,” and “well-clothed and well-appearing men.”
The two workers’ holidays are indeed different. On Labor Day, workers can take a well-deserved day off and enjoy their achievements without having to fight the bosses and cops to do so. On May Day, workers themselves assert their power, without legal sanction, in defiance of the bosses, the state, and even union leaders if necessary.
Curiously, Labor Day was started by members of the Socialist Labor Party in 1882, but by the 20th Century, the SLP was denouncing it, saying that Labor Day “represents a gift handed to the workers free, gratis and for nothing by the capitalist politicians ... meant as an antidote for labor’s own May Day.” Conversely, May Day was started in 1886 by the American Federation of Labor, but by the 20th Century, the AFL would ignore May Day and its own role in starting it. Even today, the website of the national AFL-CIO does not mention its role in starting May Day, but many local AFL-CIO unions and federations do sponsor May Day events.
This is especially true since 2006, when May Day mobilizations in the United States made headlines for the first time in living memory. Millions of immigrant workers—documented and undocumented—took to the streets as Immigrant Rights groups and Latino organizations called a nation-wide one day strike and huge marches were staged across the country. Hundreds of thousands of workers marched in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland and throughout the nation and throughout the world.
For most workers around the world—and not only in the socialist countries—May Day is a legal holiday. Even the Catholic Church, in 1955, dedicated May Day to Saint Joseph The Worker, the patron saint of workers and craftsmen.
Labor Day, like the weekend, was brought to us by the labor movement. If Labor Day has become de-politicized, we need to re-politicize it. We can do so by honoring the 30 union strikers murdered by federal troops during the Pullman Strike of 1894. It is to them, not the capitalist politicians, that we owe this holiday.
As an example of how Labor Day can maintain a political message, the Los Angeles Long Beach Harbor Labor Coalition has organized an annual Labor Day Parade and Picnic since 1979, with up to 10,000 attendees representing over 100 unions. Each year a difference slogan is chosen, such as: “Protect the 8-Hour Workday” “Labor Produces Wealth,” “Unity Across the Border,” “Workers of the World Unite,” “The Labor Movement Gave Me the Weekend.” As I recall, free hot dogs and other snacks were handed out and there were speeches addressing the state of Labor, from its past to the coming future. No politicians, however, were allowed on the podium, if my memory serves me.
The Los Angeles Long Beach Harbor Labor Coalition Parade and Picnic is possibly the best-organized and most radical Labor Day event in California, but other there are other events as well, which one can locate with a google search.
To conclude on a personal note: As a retired union member, my dues are still deducted from my pension check. Before I retired, however, I always marched with my union comrades at the annual Labor Day Parade in the harbor city of Wilmington, and ate their free union hot dogs and beans at the Rally and Picnic. I also participated in the annual May Day rally and barbeque on the Cal State Long Beach campus put on by the CSULB Labor Coalition, and paid a buck for their their union hamburgers, chips, and a soda. Both workers’ holidays are important for me.
Labor Day and May Day — two holidays to honor the Haymarket Square martyrs, the union strikers shot down by federal troops during the Pullman Strike of 1894, and the thousands of workers continuing to be murdered by police violence. Labor Day and May Day are also two days to celebrate the achievements of the labor movement.
—written by Eugene E. Ruyle