This question was asked by my sister. Its good to have the support of the family. And the recognition that I am her intellectual superior, even though she’s the one in the family with a college degree. Why else would she call me “wise one”? Here was her question:
“Well I was just thinking this past, I mean a week ago, what is the history behind the Labor Day holiday, so could you enlighten me oh wise one??”
The Labor Day holiday in the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century. This era in American history saw a lot of tension between working folks and industry. Strikes and walkouts were farily commonplace as workers fought for the establishment of what they deemed to be fair labor laws and practices, whether better wages, a shorter work day, etc. Unfortunately, due to extremism on both sides of the issue, these strikes and demonstrations often led to bloody riots and in some cases even pitched battles. The most famous riot with lasting repercussions was the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May of 1886.
Workers had gone on strike on May 1st to force an eight-hour workday into law and on May 3rd violence erupted when strikers attacked a replacement worker trying to cross the picket line. The police intervened and after the ensuing scrum, four strikers were dead. Anarchist Albert Parsons immediately began spreading the word that the police had been sent to kill the strikers at the behest of the business interests there. The next day a large rally was held at Haymarket Square that began so peacefully that the mayor of Chicago, who had stopped to watch it, decided to walk home early. After a while, the police moved in to disperse the crowd when someone hurled a bomb in their direction. A riot ensued which left seven policemen and at least four workers dead. These events are seen as instrumental to the international labor movement and are the inspiration for the May Day workers holidays celebrated around the world. But wait, Labor Day isn’t in May in the United States. No it is not. Here’s why.
As early as 1882, the Knights of Labor, a prominent workers organization in the late 1800’s, began holding a parade in New York City to honor the working man, which took place in early September. Also, for some time the Central Labor Union had been pushing Congress to establish a holiday for the worker. Since many of the unions and working orgainizations who would have preferred May 1st for the holiday–as it is internationally–were fraught with anarchists and socialists, President Grover Cleveland stepped in to support the Knights of Labor for their date. In 1894 the first Monday in September was designated Labor Day by the Congress.