Labor Day: A Uniquely American Celebration of Workers

Picnickers on the grass. (pixabay.com)

Labor Day is a uniquely American holiday, and unlike International Worker’s Day on May 1, it is not connected to the international socialist and communist movements.

Labor Day and International Worker’s Day actually both have their origins in America during the 1880s, and the origins of Labor Day in fact predates that of International Worker’s Day by a few years.

The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City, by the Central Labor Union, but the Knights of Labor, an early, non-Marxist labor organization, has also been credited as an important factor, as they held a general assembly in New York at that time.

International Worker’s Day, on the other hand, dates back to the Haymarket Affair of May 4, 1886, when an unknown person threw a bomb at police dispersing a labor demonstration in Chicago, setting off a gunfire exchange. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed and scores were wounded. The Haymarket Affair, and its legal aftermath, where eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy, became a rallying point for the socialist, communist and anarchist parts of the labor movement, not only in the United States, but internationally.

The Second International, an organization of socialist and labor parties, declared May 1 to be International Worker’s Day at their first congress in Paris in 1889, and many also advocated for May 1 as the date for a public holiday in the United States to celebrate workers.

President Grover Cleveland was concerned about the day becoming a commemoration of the violent Haymarket Affair, however, and instead supported the September holiday. In 1887, Labor Day became an official public holiday in Oregon, and several states would follow, until it was declared an official federal holiday in 1894.

So Labor Day has been able to develop into a uniquely American celebration of the achievements of American workers and their contributions to American society, without associations to strife and bloodshed—or for that matter to communism, an ideology responsible for the death of more than 100 million people in the 20th century. It has come to take on other unique American characteristics, such as symbolizing the end of summer, the beginning of the season for fall sports, and the last day when it’s acceptable to wear white. For some it’s one last day for picnics, hiking, and water activities like swimming and boating. It has also become a major commercial holiday.

International Worker’s Day, on the other hand, would become one of the most important holidays in the communist dictatorships of the Soviet Union, China, and various Eastern European and other countries. In those communist countries, it evolved into a major propaganda event, normally with huge military parades, but it was also adopted by many non-communist countries, where the focus would typically be on leftist marches, rallies, and protests with red flags and banners.

Today, the great majority of the countries in the world observe International Worker’s Day on May 1. Although it has taken on different forms in different countries, and often coincide with various traditional spring festival celebrations, the socialist and communist origins of the worker celebration is very clear in many places. All kinds of leftist organizations, from Social Democrats to the extreme left usually put on their largest marches and rallies on that day. In some cities, such as Berlin, it has become associated with violent protests and rioting.