Why is there a Labor Day holiday celebrated in September when there already is a perfectly good labor day celebrated on May Day?
While you will find no text book with a clear explanation—there is none—we can infer the reasons between the two days that honor the working man.
May Day is the traditional day that the workers of the world unite. It has long been associated with socialism, communism and even anarchy and is almost impossible to dissociate from radicalism. On May 4, 1886, a violent fight between Chicago police and strikers pushing for an eight-hour work day broke out. The deadly Haymarket riots, as the incident became known, spurred an international workers’ day that was championed by the likes of Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers.
Peter J. McGuire, an official with the American Federation of Labor, was a pro-workman radical…so much so that his own father disinherited him. But time tempered McGuire who realized that to effect change with industrialists and other decision makers affecting laborers, he had to amend his message.
Perhaps it was McGuire’s practicality that led to his idea for a separate workers’ holiday to be held in September. In the spring of 1882 he promoted the idea of a Labor Day parade in September, “as it would come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.” The Central Labor Union celebrated the first Labor Day on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, complete with parade and picnic.
Others are credited with the idea of the September Labor Day, but who originated the idea is less important than the why. Were the turn-of-the-century labor leaders savvy enough at public relations to know they would be more successful in changing industrialists’ minds to their way of thinking if they were less radical? After all, McGuire’s testimony before a United States Senate Committee was so sensible that he admitted “every strike is a success” despite winning or losing because laborers were always treated better after a strike regardless of the victor.
That September 5, 1882, Labor Day, initiated by Peter McGuire, laid the groundwork for following Labor Days. Various unions took up the celebration, and by 1887 Oregon was the first state to designate Labor Day a state holiday. Other states followed, and in 1894 a South Dakota senator and a House member from New York introduced bills making Labor Day a national holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law.