Workers of America Unite!

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.

The proprietors of Jones Dry Goods in Kansas City honored the spirit of Labor Day by giving their employees a day off from work. They even suggested that Labor Day “should be observed the same as the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.” Kansas City Journal, (Missouri), Aug 27, 1899

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.

Fighting between anarchists and police broke out in Chicago on May 4, 1886. What became known as the Haymarket Riots became the impetus for May Day to honor the working class and their demands for an eight-hour workday. Helena Weekly Herald (Montana), May 27, 1886

Helena Weekly Herald (Montana), May 27, 1886

Helena Weekly Herald (Montana), May 27, 1886







Helena Weekly Herald (Montana), May 27, 1886

Eugene Debs, a proponent of celebrating workers and laborers on May Day, ran for president of the United States on the socialist ticket five times. Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), January 18, 1922Samuel Gompers, while more moderate than Debs, also pushed for workers’ rights on May Day. Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 16, 1922

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.

Peter J. McGuire, was a leader in the American labor movement and considered the founder of Labor Day. The Federal Government adopted his idea, establishing a national holiday on June 28, 1894, to honor the workers of America. Românul American (Detroit, Michigan), August 31, 1963

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.”[1]  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.[2]

Descendants of Matthew Maguire and Peter McGuire argue over who should be credited as the Father of Labor Day. No such rivalry for the history books existed while the two men lived. Lewiston Teller (Idaho), September 24, 1896


As in modern times, some of the first Labor Day celebrations included carousing. In Boston 149 people were arrested for drunkenness on its first Labor Day. State Rights Democrat (Albany, Oregon), September 30, 1887

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.

Without fanfare, this Kentucky newspaper announces that Labor Day is signed into law, making it an official national holiday. Mt. Sterling Advocate (Kentucky), July 3, 1894

No doubt the editors of this paper were tongue-in-cheek about the magnanimity of the Cleveland administration signing into law another holiday, but it would be hard to find push-back on such an idea from your average worker! Abilene Weekly Reflector (Kansas), July 5, 1894


[1] Stewart, Estelle M.  “Origin and Significance of Labor Day.”  Monthly Labor Review 43, no. 2 (August 1936): 279-284.

[2] Grossman, Jonathan.  “Who is the Father of Labor Day?”  Labor History 14, no 4 (Fall 1973): 612-623.

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