05 September 2005

labor day

In an act passed on 28 June 1894, the United States Congress set aside the first Monday of September in order to celebrate "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations." Most of the world, however, celebrates organized labor on the first day of May, a date that was chosen ironically in relation to events that occured in the United States.

May Day, of course, is a holiday with ancient origins (particularly in germanic countries), but has come to be associated in many places with celebrations and parades on the part organized labor and various socialist, anarchist, and far-left groups. Labor-oriented May Day celebrations seem to come from the demand by organized labor in the US to establish an 8-hour workday, setting 1 May 1886 as the deadline for implementation. When the day passed without demands being met, a general strike was called and various rallies were held across the country, the most famous of which devolved into the famous Chicago "Haymarket Riot."

Historians are not sure exactly what happened during the 4 May rally at Haymarket Square, but the outcome is certain: after what had been peaceful demonstration, a bomb went off killing twelve people, including one police officer, and mortally wounding seven more officers. At this point the police opened fire on the crowd, killing eleven demonstrators and injuring many others.

Eight of the demonstration's organizers were arrested, tried, and found guilty, seven of them being sentenced to death. While two of the convicted had their sentences commuted to life in prison and one committed suicide prior to execution, the four others were hung. After an investigation into the case, which determined that the defendents were all innocent, the governor of Illinois granted pardons to the surviving defendents. Morever, in the end, the eight-hour workday also become officially established.

The overall result was that the worldwide labor movement had obtained four martyrs for the cause and 1 May became a commemoration of not only labor's victory in establishing the eight-hour workday, but also the ongoing conflict between organized labor and those who would suppress it, even through the imposition of force and the miscarriage of justice in the courts. Of course, as even Haymarket shows, there have always been those in the cause of labor who wouldn't stop short of violence themselves.

But you're probably wondering what all this has to do with Labor Day.

Part of the reason that Labor Day in the US falls on the first Monday in September is that, whatever else the significance of this date, it is not 1 May. President Grover Cleveland resisted suggestions that the US adopt 1 May as a celebration of workers, fearing that it would do too much to promote the cause of those who looked to the Haymarket Riot as a symbol of their struggles, especially socialists and anarchists.

While there are various accounts of the origins of Labor Day, the most well-known one suggests that the Knights of Labor held a parade in early September 1882 establishing it afterwards as an annual event, both celebrating organized labor and as a "workingman's holiday." In some versions of the story, idea for the celebration is attributed to a Matthew McGuire, then secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York City. Labor unions at that time were largely organized around a platform of an 8-hour workday, the end of child labor and equal pay for equal work.

Their annual celebration became the basis for our modern Labor Day, first receiving official sanction on the municipal level. Various States later established Labor Day as a State holiday, culminating in Congress enacting the holiday on a nationwide basis in 1894.

Whatever one's opinion of organized labor today and its past errors (e.g., excluding non-whites), the work of labor unions over the past century and a half has left an indelible mark on the face of American labor practices and expectations, improving working conditions for many, particularly back in an era where there were few legal protections for workers. It's also worth noting that in the 19th century confessional Protestants were among those active in efforts to improve working conditions, eliminate child factory labor, disband sweatshops, establish liveable wages, and the like.