For many of us, Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday in September, means the end of summer vacation, a forceful ordainment not to wear white, and an excuse for department stores to have sales. Outside of North America, Labor Day falls on May 1, and the existence of two separate Labor Days can be a source of confusion for some. But as with all holidays, it’s important to keep in mind the history behind our happy day off, and remember that Labor Day is a celebration of laborers, introduced at a time when labor meant something far more grueling than it generally denotes today.
The first Labor Day celebration took place in NYC on September 5, 1882, when about 10,000 union workers marched in a parade to honor the American worker, who at the time were without the labor laws we now take for granted. This event was a catalyst that spread the Labor Day sentiment across America. Beginning with Oregon in 1887, a number of states adopted Labor Day as a legal holiday scheduled for the first Monday of September.
But the holiday did not remedy the labor situation in Industrial Revolution era America. In 1894 the entire railroad system was compromised by the strike and boycott against the Pullman Palace Car Company, a railroad company guilty of terrible treatment of their workers. In response to the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to take action, which escalated the violence and caused several deaths. It was in the midst of this strike that President Cleveland, in an effort to appease a livid public, passed a bill that made Labor Day a national holiday. Labor Day continues to this day, intended to be a reminder of the struggle of the labor workforce.
Elsewhere in the world, laborers are honored on May Day (May 1), also known as International Workers’ Day. This holiday was instituted by countries worldwide in response to the Haymarket Riot of 1886, a peaceful protest gone awry with another violent altercation against the Chicago workforce by the police. Although the events that instigated May Day took place in America, the United States did not adopt it as a legal holiday, and the countries that did celebrated the day in unique ways. May Day was particularly embraced in the Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc, but with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe the holiday has grown more and more removed from its violent origins. This is not unlike Labor Day in America, which is little remembered for the labor required to grant us this one day off.
Aside from eating the standard hot dog and taking a day off from your usual Monday laboring, what Labor Day traditions do you have?