This is a nice idea, as Labor Day as it stands is a bit of an oddity. Only the US, Canada and New Zealand celebrate it in September. The rest of the world stick with International Workers’ Day on 1 May (May Day), a day more closely identified with the labour movement, which sees big rallies and union events in many European countries.
But the strangest part of this is that the Yanks themselves invented our May Day, and then backed away from partying with us. What the rest of the world is celebrating on May 1 is actually the struggle and great successes of the American labour movement in fighting for the 8-hour working day.
Back in May 1886, the US unions launched a general strike to demand a limit to impossible working hours and conditions. Demonstrations were held in many US cities, with Chigaco having the largest. Two days afterwards, with the mood in Chigaco still on a knife-edge, police and Pinkertons men hired by employers attacked a crowd of strikers who were harassing strike-breakers. Six were killed and the crisis escalated. A demonstration in Chigago’s Haymarket that was called in protest was broken up violently by police, when someone in the crowd threw a bomb. This triggered a still harsher police crack-down. A kangaroo court sentenced seven labour activists to death, despite a lack of evidence.
The campaign continued though, and in 1889, AFL president Samuel Gompers convinced the Second International to support an “a great international demonstration” on May 1, to fight for the 8-hour day. This successful action grew into an annual event, and was enshrined as a public holiday in many countries.
And it worked, fundamentally changing millions of Americans’ working lives for the better. US union campaigning won their members the right to an 8 hour-day in mining (1898), construction (1900) and printing (1905), and 1917 saw the first 8-hour day legislation for all workers in rail, with other industries following in 1937.
Labor Day came in 1894. It did have roots in the labor movement – New York’s Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor had been celebrating it since 1882, as a “a day off for the working citizens”. President Grover Cleveland sensed the growing mood for a workers’ celebration, and quickly siezed on the lesiure-time focus of Labor Day, rather than the more strident campaign focus of May Day. Labor Day was a handy pressure valve, which Cleveland hoped would avoid having too many people commemorating the still raw memories of Haymarket and possibly fuelling socialist agitation in the US (It also made a nice election year bribe – though Cleveland still lost).
Which is why the Take Back Labor Day project is so interesting. Today, Labor day for most Americans is what Cleveland probably intended – a nice day off at the end of the summer, known as much for the start of the American Football and NASCAR seasons, and the fashion advice to stop wearing white, as it is for its eponymous connection. The US calendar could do with a bigger focus on working people’s lives and issues, and the US labour movement could certainly do with more recognition and connection with the rest of society – especially with the new forms of social dialogue taking place on the new web. Labor Day could be revitalised to fill this gap.
It’s especially important in the year in which Americans are being asked to choose between a presidential candidate who supports the Employee Free Choice Act, and one who sponsored the bill to oppose it. The bill aims to enforce penalties for the rampant union-busting that’s making it so difficult for unions to organise working people, so I’ll leave it to you to guess which candidate is which.
So to my US colleagues, have a very happy Labor Day. And don’t forget not to wear white – This year, red is the only colour to be seen in!