What is Labor Day and Why Do We Celebrate It?

A brief history of Labor Day and why we celebrate it

Labor Day

Labour Day (spelled as Labor Day in the United States) is an annual holiday to commemorate the historical achievements of laborers and working classes. In Canada and United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September which also marks the unofficial end of summer in these countries.

In other countries, Labour Day is synonymous with or usually associated with the International Workers’ Day, which is celebrated on May 1, though some countries have chosen their own dates for Labour Day, often one with special significance for the labor movement in their country.

What are labor movement, trade union, and political labour movement?

Labour movement is basically a political movement which campaigns to improve the rights and conditions of working people. It has two main wings: labor/trade union movement and the political labour movement.

  • The labor/trade union movement is made up of collective organization of working people. It is formed to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and further their rights and interests in a trade or profession.
  • The political labour movement in many countries includes a political party which represents the interests of employees. Often known as ‘Labor or Workers Party’

History and Origins of Labour Day

In modern times, for most Americans, Labor Day means cook-out, barbecue, and sales shopping. But Labour Day has a bloody history, one which has its origin in the labor movement, workers’ rights and their achievements, most notably the eight-hour day movement which advocated “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

Throughout most of the human history, the vast majority of people were farmers. There was no industry in the modern sense which means that there was little to no industrialized workers’ force that could threaten to bring an industry to a halt, and not many people would care even if they did. Medieval guilds were more like cartels than labor/trade union. Most of them were small business owners rather than laborers who had no ownership interest. The masters of these guilds employed apprentices and journeymen who were not allowed to organize.

But with the rise of the industrial revolution and industrial capitalism during the 18th to 19th centuries world’s labor changed drastically. During the 18th century Britain, the rapid expansion of industrial society drew many women, children, rural workers and immigrants into the work force and in new roles.

Most of the workers during those times were underpaid and were at the mercy of their employer. They lacked the necessary training and were mistreated sometimes. These circumstances caused laborers to spontaneously organize and form trade unions.

As these trade unions and labor movements grew, different trade unionists chose days on which to celebrate labor. The holiday called ‘Labor Day’ was first proposed in the 1880s. The first ever Labor Day celebration was held on September 5, 1882, under the Central Labor Union (CLU), a left-wing union of New York which later broke up into local organizations which are now members of the modern American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Matthew Maguire, who was Secretary of the CLU, is usually credited with the idea of national Labor Day on first Monday of every September, after his first successful public demonstration.

However, an alternative theory says, Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor put forward the first national Labor Day proposal in May 1882, after he witnessed the annual labour festival held in Toronto, Canada.

Why American labor unions decided to celebrate Labor Day in September instead of May?

observation of labor day in different countries
Countries and dependencies colored by the observance of International Workers’ Day or a different variant of May Day or Labour Day. Via Wikipedia

United States and Canada are the only countries who celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September instead of May, rest of the world countries celebrates labor day (also known as Workers Day in many countries) on May 1 or have a different date which has significance to their own labor union movement in the country. But May Day wasn’t always and still isn’t just for Labor Day celebrations.

May Day is an annual public holiday which is celebrated on May 1. It is an ancient spring festival in the northern hemisphere not related to labor day or International Workers’ Day. Celebrations included Dances, singing, and cakes.

But in the late 19th century, socialists and communists of the Second International, an organization of socialist and labour parties, chose ‘May Day‘ as the date for International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. Which began as a peaceful rally in support of workers who were striking for an eight-hour work day, day after several workers were killed by the police. But became bloody after an unknown person threw a bomb at police while they acted to disperse the crowd. Haymarket Affair is generally considered as the origin of international May Day observances for workers.

In Europe, the reporting about Haymarket incident had generally been more positive towards the workers. So when it came time to establish an official “Labor Day”, for most Europeans May 1st was an easy choice. In the United States, though, the date was fraught with a lot more bad blood.

During the 1880s, there was a dispute among various United States’ labor unions on when should be the holiday celebrated. A large number of workers advocated for May 1st (aka May Day). However, Grover Cleveland, who was the President at the time, was worried that labor day celebration on May 1st would be a commemoration of the Haymarket Affair. As it was under the name International Workers’ Day and was celebrated on May 1st.

Due to this, in 1887, Cleveland publicly supported the September Labor Day holiday, which commemorated public workers strike in New York City. Soon after Oregon became the first US state to make Labor Day an official public holiday. By 1894, it became an official federal holiday but thirty U.S. states already officially celebrated Labor Day even before it became an official holiday.

Labor Day became a national holiday after deaths of several workers at the hands of United States Army and the United States Marshals Service during the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago. After which United States Congress unanimously voted to approve a legislation which made Labor Day a national holiday. Though the establishment of Labor Day did not put an end to conflicts between employees and employers, workers’ lives generally improved in the 20th century.

How is Labor Day celebrated around the world?

Different countries celebrate Labor Day in their own way. In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated with parades organized by unions, parties, BBQ with friends, and picnics. In France, people give bouquets of lily-of-the-valley or dog rose flowers to their loved ones. Labor Day has also become one of one of the biggest sale days in the United States. A lot of shops and online retail outlets hold “Labor Day” sales.

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