The history of Labor Day reveals that it is closely related to May Day, parade and all. Secular holidays both, they hold ample meaning for the emerging struggle between worker and management. Have you ever dared to dig beneath the surface?
Before Labor Day: May Day 1856
The initial May Day goes back to Australia’s workers in 1856. Rosa Luxemburg chronicled (in 1894) about their struggles to attain the eight-hour workday and follow it up with an annual commemoration of the work stoppage that – in all fairness – took place on April 21.
History of Labor Day: First Observance in 1882
New York led the way to celebrate Labor Day as a “workingmen’s holiday.” The Department of Labor explains that from the labor unions’ first efforts in this direction, the movement spread across the United States. Municipal proclamations of a Labor Day took place in 1885 and 1886.
May Day in Chicago, 1886
In 1886 some 340,000 workers – the University of Arkansas points out Milwaukee and other cities were involved as well – took to the streets over their demands for an eight-hour workday. Law enforcement attacked the rally, but the battle cry was out. In spite of severe police action, in 1890 the May Day demonstrators once again took to the streets of Chicago, demanding the eight-hour workday.
Oregon Passes Labor Day Law, 1887
Oregon blazed a legal trail by declaring Labor Day one of its statewide secular holidays. Plenty of other states followed suit. In fact, so many states had signed on that Congress decided to make it a nationwide observance in 1894.
International May Day Protests Show Solidarity of the Workforce
In 1891, one of the bloodiest May Day demonstrations took place in France, when women and children were accosted by army personnel. Soon the May Day parade also became an open expression of disgust with oppressive governmental entities, even though the cost of the protest was human blood. Examples are the bloody Turkish demonstrations in 1977 and 1996.
Celebrating Secular Holidays for All They’re Worth
The history of Labor Day reveals that celebrations were to include street parades showcasing “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Workers and their families were then to be treated to a festival or party that focused on fun and recreation. The Labor Day barbeque was born.
The Ultimate Irony: Labor Day Hijacked by Commerce
It is clear that Labor Day would not have been possible without May Day observances. Concurrently, the May Day movement may have fizzled, had Labor Day organizers not insisted on parading the American worker in a display of strength and solidarity. These secular holidays are closely intertwined.
Anyone drawing a paycheck will do well to see past politicians who are attempting to hogtie May Day to their messages of the moment. Of course, perhaps the ultimate irony is the number of retailers selling overtime-produced goods in special sales on that day.
It may be worthwhile to recognize the true meaning of the occasion, some of which was paid for in blood.