by Camille Delany
America is nearly unique in our celebration of Labor Day in September. We’re joined on the first Monday in September by Canada alone, while over 80 nations across the world hold their equivalent celebrations on May 1. The distinctive origins of the day were never, to my memory, discussed over the course of my public school education or during the hometown parades I’d attended as a child, leaving me surprised to learn the complicated history of Labor Day.
If you enjoy weekends, a largely labor-free childhood, or having any free time to speak of, you owe a debt of gratitude to labor organizers of centuries past. Throughout the 1800s, the work day was typically dawn-til-dusk—in trials dating to around the turn of the 19th century, manufacturing laborers were found to be working as many as 18 hours in a day. Early unions focused on raising wages for laborers as well as reducing hours and defending workers’ right to organize. By the close of the century, the international labor movement had coalesced around the fight for the 8-hour workday.
To this end, labor and trade unions across the nation went on strike on May 1, 1886. No city was more active in the movement than industrialized Chicago, where masses of laborers laid down their tools and exited their workplaces. However, their act of civil disobedience was met with brutal backlash from bosses, who in the days following the May 1 strike joined forces with the police to violently disband peacefully protesting workers.
In the ensuing clashes, which came to be known as the Haymarket Incident, at least four civilians were shot to death by police and many others were injured. Police also suffered casualties, and in a trial that would later be considered a miscarriage of justice, seven union leaders were sentenced to death for a bombing that took place during the fallout, even though only two of those charged had even been present. Four were executed the following year; two had their sentence commuted to life in prison; one died in jail. In 1893, the governor of Illinois would conclude that the trial was not fair, and pardon the surviving defendants.
The Haymarket Incident was one reason for celebrating International Workers’ Day on May 1, which remains the Labor Day for most of the world. It would also result in the declaration of two holidays in the US: Labor Day, on the first Monday in September, and Loyalty Day (also known as Americanization Day) on May 1. I hadn’t heard of that last one, either, but it turns out that while the rest of the world is rallying for workers’ rights and celebrating the accomplishments of laborers on the anniversary of the Haymarket Incident, US presidents give an annual proclamation extolling loyalty to America.
Loyalty Day was proposed during the Red Scare of the 1920s and adopted officially in the ‘50s with 36 U.S. Code § 115, which designates it as, “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” The holiday’s raison d’etre is obvious: to counter any demonstration of solidarity with workers of the world on May Day.
Nevertheless, this past weekend we celebrated the American worker with parades, camping trips, and retail discounts. In fact, the latter seems to be the most prevalent angle in press coverage of this Labor Day; the majority of headlines claim to aggregate “Labor Day Sales” from big box stores or online retailers. Fittingly, the contemporary legacy of the September Labor Day does not honor production or labor. On this day conceived to quash solidarity between American workers and the international organized labor movement, we celebrate the consumption of goods.