For most of us Labor Day marks the end of summer, one last long weekend to enjoy sunshine and cookouts with friends and family. Rarely do we ask where did this holiday come from and what does it commemorate? I don’t recall the history of Labor Day being taught in school and beyond advice for avoiding sunburn at the beach it doesn’t get much press attention. I think it’s a safe bet that few of us are aware of the fascinating and complex origins of this national holiday.
Labor Day, as an American holiday, has its roots in the labor movement of the late 19th century. The years after the Civil War were a period of incredible economic expansion and industrialization in the United States. Massive waves of immigrants were landing on our shores as workers arrived to toil in factories, logging, mining, and railroads. Working conditions were often very hazardous, wages were low, the labor market corrupt, and child labor was rampant. Early labor unions were formed to try to improve the lives for workers through solidarity. Individuals who identified as members of anarchist, socialist, and even communist groups organized and led many of these early efforts.
One important event leading to the creation of Labor Day occurred on May 4, 1886 in Haymarket Square, Chicago, Illinois. The event was a worker rally organized by a group of anarchists in support of the eight-hour workday. In many ways the rally was a complete failure as many of the speakers failed to appear and the expected crowd of 20,000 was only about 2,500. It was near the end of the rally, when only about 200 people remained that more than 100 police officers armed with rifles showed up to break up the rally. An unknown person then threw a bomb at the police, who panicked and opened fire, killing some of their own. In the end seven police officers and four of the workers were dead and scores were wounded.
The government responded to this tragedy by declaring martial law throughout the entire nation and then arresting large numbers of labor leaders including the anarchist organizers of the rally. Eight organizers of the rally were charged with murder despite there being no evidence that they had anything to do with the bomb and the fact that all but two of them were not present when the bomb exploded. The two who were present were on the podium and couldn’t have thrown the bomb. The eight anarchist organizers were put on trial and all were convicted in what most workers considered to be a horribly unfair trial. It is said that the company bosses selected the names for the jury pool and the Chicago Tribune is said to have offered money to the jury if they convicted. Five of the eight convicted anarchists were executed by hanging. The surviving three fared better when they were later pardoned after a new governor, John P. Altgeld, was elected. Governor Altgeld reviewed the case, found there to be no evidence to support the convictions, and granted pardons to the survivors.
This event became known as the “Haymarket Affair” and it became a rallying point for workers who began gathering every May 1st to remember the martyrs of the Haymarket Affair. This annual event grew into what is known as either “May Day” or “International Workers Day” which is celebrated on May 1st of each year. To this day, many countries throughout the world, including all the major industrial countries except the United States, celebrate some sort of worker’s holiday on May 1st.
The creation of the U.S. federal holiday of Labor Day occurred less than 10 years after the Haymarket affair, following yet even more workers’ deaths at the hands of the government. This time it was railroad workers who were striking against the Pullman Palace Car Company. The workers were led by Eugene Debs, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), and who would later go onto become the leading socialist figure in the United States. The Pullman Company petitioned the Courts and obtained an injunction against the strike on the basis that, because the company carried mail on its trains, the worker’s strike was causing disruption of the mail. President Grover Cleveland then sent in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marshalls to break up the strike. The Army opened fire on the striking workers, killing 30 and wounding 57. This violent suppression of the strike created conflict between President Cleveland and the labor movement. Less than six days after the end of the Pullman Strike, President Cleveland and Congress, both seeking to find political conciliation with the labor movement, pushed through legislation creating the national Labor Day holiday. However, to ensure that the holiday did not continue to become a memorial to the martyrs of the Haymarket Affair, President Cleveland moved the holiday from May 1st to its current date in September. President Cleveland appears to have achieved his goal, because few Americans today have any knowledge of the Haymarket Affair and few have ever heard of the deaths of the workers during the Pullman Strike.
The censorship of history continues to this day. The US Department of Labor website describes the holiday as “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes of a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” It is telling that the Department of Labor website fails to mention the government’s bloody roles in the Haymarket Affair and the Pullman strike and how those two events contributed to the creation of the holiday.