Most of us think of Labor Day as that date that marks the end of the summer season when we all get one last day of BBQ and beer consumption prior to the chill in the air that is sure to come. What many do not know is the real history of the holiday and what it represents other than the day you can no longer wear white in society circles. Primarily Labor Day is America’s version of International Workers Day or May Day.
In the late 19th century Karl Marx’s writings were gaining a lot of attention and his ideas embraced by many early progressives all over the world. One place they really caught on was in the labor movement. One fellow that was especially enamored with Marx was a German Immigrant in Chicago by the name of August Spies. Spies was a member of the socialist workers party and a well known anarchist. On May 4th 1886 he gave a rousing speech to a large crowd of striking workers at a rally in Haymarket Square. Later that night as tensions (and no doubt alcohol) began getting out of control, one of his fellow anarchists threw a pipe bomb into the crowd of police officers there to disperse the crowd. The ensuing battle was known as the HayMarket Massacre. During the melee about 60 officers were wounded and an unknown number of civilians. Eight policemen and at least four workers were killed.
Unions and Socialists and the combination thereof around the world were outraged by the incident and by 1890 Socialist groups in France (of course) called for demonstrations on May first of each year to commemorate the event. By 1894 the commemoration had spread to socialist unions all over the world including the United States. Union leaders in the states pushed for a federal holiday to be created to officially pay tribute to the incident. One of those union leaders by the name of Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union, led a nationwide strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1894. Debs was a democrat at the time but later joined the American Socialist Party (hmmmm) and ran for president several times. He instructed his members to refuse to hook up or handle Pullman cars nationwide and 125,000 railroad workers did just that. Since Pullman cars made up a large part of the railroad fleet at the time, virtually every single railroad in the country ground to a halt. Finally since the strike interfered with the delivery of the US mail, president Grover Cleveland sent in federal marshals and 12,000 troops to break up the strike. Of course violence broke out and thirteen strikers were killed and fifty seven wounded before the strike was broken.
Later, in order to “mend fences” with organized labor and help defuse the situation Grover Cleveland pushed though a bill to identify Labor Day as an official federal holiday. This date coincided with a annual celebration conducted each year by the Central Labor Union of New York and ended the calls for an official recognition of May Day in the United States.
So, on this Labor Day, while you enjoy your beer and BBQ, remember that you are enjoying your day off work because the United States of America chose to embrace a socialist holiday. Enjoy.