The U.S. Department of Labor's site omits it, but the timing of Labor Day as a federal holiday on the first Monday in September — today — was by design ideological and anti-socialist. The odd thing is that the origin of the May 1st Day of Labor, or International Workers' Day if you prefer, is as American as apple pie.
May Day commemorates a pivotal event in U.S. labor history, the Haymarket Massacre, which occurred on May 4, 1886, in Chicago.
The incident took place during a peaceful demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square demanding the eight-hour workday, which is now an almost universal labor standard. The workers were mostly immigrants from Germany and what was then the Kingdom of Bohemia (now Czech Republic).
An unknown individual — believed to be an agent provocateur who he did it to give the police an excuse to anti-worker attacks — threw a dynamite bomb at police, which reacted vigorously to disperse the gathering. Between the bomb and shooting that followed seven policemen were killed and at least four civilians, with dozens of people injured.
In case you think the protesters were rebels without a cause, consider that they worked for $1.50 per day, 10 hours a day, six days a week. In 2014 dollars, would be $37.50 a day ($3.75 an hour), or $ 11,700 annually — just $ 300 in excess of the U.S. poverty level for a single-person household
In brief, protesters worked 10 hours a day for sums insufficient to support a family — and those days women were not supposed to work (although children did). Moreover, they had taken to the streets in response to the shooting of several workers by police the day before.
The May 4 protest had a history.
In October 1884, a convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Unions unanimously set on May 1, 1886, as a target date for the adoption of and eight-hour work day. As the date approached without policy measures by the government, unions prepared for a general strike.
On Saturday, May 1st, 1886, an estimated 300,000 to a half-million workers participated in the strike in major cities nationwide, and paraded in the streets chanting "Eight-hour day, with no cut in pay."
After the riot in Chicago three days later, many lawmakers in Congress expressed shock and the need to commemorate Labor Day. Most labor organizations, many affiliated to the First International, preferred May 1st to commemorate the broad-based 1886 protest strike that had led to the Haymarket Affair, as some called it.
President Grover Cleveland, however, believed a holiday on May 1st would incite workers to disorder while also strengthening the nascent and broad-based socialist movement. Cleveland belonged to pro-business wing of Democratic Party, at the time dubbed "Bourbon Democrats."
The alternative date we have today stems from a parade held on September 5, 1882 in New York by the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, a Catholic-inspired anti-socialist union. the Knights repeated the event in 1884 and decided to do so henceforth every first Monday in September. Naturally, they endorsed their parade date as Labor Day. In 1887 Cleveland endorsed the position of the Knights and its date.
The story doesn't end there. It had at least two sequels.
First, the popular pressure for the eight-hour day continued. At the 1888 convention of the FOTU (that year renamed American Federation of Labor, it was decided that yet another push for the eight-hour workday was needed and settled on May 1, 1890, for other general strike.
The International Workers Association (or Second International), meeting in Paris in 1889, endorsed the AFL's date for international demonstrations in solidarity, thus starting the international workers' tradition of May Day.
But the struggle for the eight-hour workday was long. It was won first in the U.S.A. by the miners' union in 1898, then construction workers in San Francisco's won it in 1900, the printers in 1905. In 1914 the Ford Company doubled pay to $ 5 a day and reduced the workday from nine to eight hours.
Yet it was not until 1916, with wartime protests looming, that the federal government established the eight-hour day as a national standard. Under the later legislation and litigation, a broad swath of salaried workers are exempt from overtime pay rules and effectively from the eight-hour workday.
A second consequence of the Haymarket Massacre was the hoary Chicago trial of eight anarchist workers were accused of conspiring to incite violence. Five were sentenced to death (one committed suicide before his execution) and three were sentenced to prison. The labor movement called them the Martyrs of Chicago.
The trial, which lasted until 1893, was universally described as illegitimate and deliberately malicious. The new governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the accused and joined those who criticized the prosecution of the case in the courts.
Altgeld, one of the founders of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, could have been a candidate for president, as many at the time said they wanted, if he had not been born a fellow citizen of the German immigrants who fought for their rights in Haymarket Square.
Happy Labor Day and remember: no rights have been acquired without considerable struggle and those who say so are likely trying to deprive you of some.