Labor Day’s Anti-Socialist History

I’ve been wondering- what’s the difference between Labor Day and May Day?

International Worker’s Day is celebrated on May 1st. But, in America, the birthplace of this holiday, over a century of capitalist propaganda and suppression has pushed us into celebrating “Labor Day” on the first Monday of September. 

This September 5th, join me in learning about the anti-socialist history of American “Labor Day” and help us promote worker power by bringing democracy into our economy.

The first thing I learned is that May 1st has long been linked to a celebration of summer and pleasure, from pagan traditions. In 1856, Australian stonemasons held a work stoppage on April 21st to fight for the 8 hour workday, and the idea of an employee holiday spread around the world.

Perhaps inspired by those other celebrations, the American Federation of Labor decided workers would go on a general strike on May 1, 1886 to fight for an 8 hour workday. When 200,000 employees walked out in Chicago, conflicts between the police and the crowds escalated and killed many involved. Four days later, a bomb was thrown in an event now known as the Haymarket Affair- killing seven police officers and four civilians at least. With little to no evidence, eight anarchists were framed for the bombing and four of them were publicly executed.

In honor of struggling workers and the framed activists, in 1989 the International Socialist Conference named May 1st, May Day, a labor holiday to be celebrated around the world.

However, the American origin of this holiday has been twisted over time in a uniquely American way. 

In 1894, United States President Grover Cleveland established “Labor Day'' as a way to appease the country’s employees following the legendary Pullman Strike- when railroad workers shut down the entire country’s train lines to oppose low wages and high rents and more than 30 workers were killed by the U.S. Marshalls while suppressing the strike. The new holiday, in September, claimed to give a fresh start to celebrating labor by eliminating connections to the violence of the Haymarket Affair or the Pullman Strike. In reality, "Labor Day" tried to wipe our memories and history books clean of the power of collective action.

A half century later, in 1958, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared May 1st “Law Day” to further suppress the populist celebrations on that date. To divide Americans from the rest of the world, our celebration of labor was scheduled for the first Monday of September (in line with the less political origin story of some unions having a parade in New York City). 

That’s why we celebrate Labor Day in September- to cover up the struggle for worker’s rights in America. This divisive history shows us why we need democracy in the workplace- to leave behind the harmful divisions of employers/employees.  

So on this Labor Day, I hope you take some rest (all employees deserve it!) but I also hope this teaches us a lesson about the destructive system of capitalism.

Thank a union for the 8 hour work day, and mark your calendars for May 1st.

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