Labor Day in the United States: 118 Years of Bread and Circuses
We don’t do Labor Day when the rest of the world celebrates labor. The U. S. and most Commonwealth countries have weird, made-up dates to celebrate their labor movements; basically everyone else celebrates International Workers’ Day on May 1.
That’s because our Labor Day was made up to discourage labor demonstrations on that same May Day anniversary. Labor action on May 1 began as a commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, making it a domestic tradition, despite our pointed non-participation in modern times. The International picked it up in the 1890s and encouraged its spread to other countries, to the point that it’s now celebrated officially in over 80 nations.
Here in the U.S., however, a “Labor Day” celebrated in September was created in 1894 by a bill rushed through Congress at President Grover Cleveland’s urging. It followed the Pullman Strikes and violent May Day demonstrations of that year, and was specifically designed as both a gesture of reconciliation with labor leaders and a way to move labor demonstrations away from the increasingly-international May Day date.
Nor was that the end of official U.S. efforts to discourage labor action on May 1; the Eisenhower era gave us “Law Day,” which is theoretically still on the books for May 1:
Law Day, U.S.A., is a special day of celebration by the people of the United States—
(1) in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries; and
(2) for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.
That one, happily, has mostly fizzled in the public mind, but less happily the same seems to have happened to what the rest of the world now acknowledges as International Workers’ Day. And a lot of that has to do with the bread and circuses — sorry, barbecues and parades — we’ll all be enjoying today.
So spare a thought for the calculated concession behind the holiday as you celebrate today. The day off is nice (unless you work in retail, of course, in which case it’s usually longer hours and harder work rather than a day off), but was it really worth bowing out of the rest of the world’s annual demonstrations?