Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Not May First?

The International Workers’ Day is celebrated the world over on the first of May; 80 countries across the world do so—many others do so unofficially. By contrast, we celebrate the day on the first Monday of September. And yet! And yet the May Day event had its roots in—Chicago. When that history is understood, the different ways of dating this celebrations also emerge.

On May 4, 1886, people were massing in a rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago in support of a workers’ strike attempting to limit work to eight hours a day. Police were attempting to disperse the mob; someone threw a bomb; shooting ensued. In the melee seven police officers and four (perhaps more) civilians were killed. This event is called the Haymarket Affair, massacre, or riot.

Okay. That was May 4. But back two years earlier, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (started in 1881, dissolved in December 1886) had set May 1, 1886 as the target date on which the eight-hour day would be officially instituted. So what happened is that the Haymarket Massacre was already, on May 4, associated with the first of May. Indeed, on May 1, 1886, somewhere between 300,000 to half a million laborers held rallies in the United States. We started what later has come to be associated with an annual even of socialist coloration.

Our Labor Day was first proposed by the Central Labor Union (CLU) in 1882. It was first celebrated in New York City that year on September 5. It spread from there and became a national holiday in 1894—in the wake of the Pullman (Railroad) Strike that summer; 30 people lost their lives in that event in the course of which thousands of U.S. marshals and 12,000 Army troops participated in putting it down. CLU deliberately chose a September date because, by that time multiple movements of an anarchist, communist, and syndicalist nature had already sprung up.

We were there, we were the first—but not May 1st. The first Monday in September. Got it? Good.
Illustration from Wikipedia (link); the image first appeared on May 15, 1886, in Harper’s Weekly.


  1. I am sure the September date was also due to the growing popularity and calendar proximity of Decoration Day, which became Memorial day in 1882 (coincidence? I bet not):

    The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day", which was first used in 1882. -

    Decoration day being fixed on May 30th since 1868.

  2. Interesting history that I did not know. Thanks.