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Why isn't Labor Day celebrated in May in the US?

The historical significance behind International Workers Day is based on events that happened in the US, so why is the day not celebrated here?

Why isn't Labor Day celebrated in May in the US?
DPA vía Europa Press DPA vía Europa Press

In the US, Labor Day has been celebrated in September since the 1880s. Efforts have been made to move the day to May to align with the international celebration, but the remnants of Cold War tensions have soured this endeavor.

A brief history of International Workers Day

While the United States does not celebrate International Workers Day, events from the US labor movement inspired the Marxist International Socialist Congress to chose May 1st for their day of action. In 1890, in Paris, the Marxist International Socialist Congress chose the first of May to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago.

On 1 May 1, 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later changed its name to the American Federation of Labor, called on its members to strike for an eight-hour workday. In Chicago, workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company participated in a strike to encourage leadership to implement the workday change. More than four hundred police officers guarded the factory to prevent the entrance of the workers on strike. On the third day of the strike, a few protestors tried to break through the police line to confront the strikebreakers, and they were shot upon. Local anarchist groups quickly released a pamphlet detailing the event and encouraged workers to join a rally at Haymarket Square the following day.

Details on the number of workers who participated in the rally are unclear and range from 600 to 3000. The attendants chanted, marched, and listened to speeches. Towards the end of the day, police moved into the area to disburse the protestors, and before they reached the crowd, a bomb was thrown in the direction of the police. The officers quickly began shooting, creating a stampede and chaos that left six officers dead and sixty wounded. As for the protestors, two deaths were confirmed, but the total death and injury count was never released.

Repression of the labor movement swiftly followed the events, but later, the event would be recognized as a critical moment in the US movement for an eight-hour workday.

Attack on organized labor in the 20th century

The Marxist and Socialist ties to International Workers Day made it popular among organized labor in the US in the early part of the 20th century. Throughout the 20th century, as the Cold War progressed and the Red Scare motivated the attack on organized labor, the idea of moving the US’ labor day to May, became politically toxic.

Unionization in the United States reached its peak in 1950. That year more than a third of all workers in the US were card-carrying union members. Union membership was popular as organized labor had led to the establishment of the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek. Additionally, muckrakers, activists, and unions had improved the safety conditions of workers and encouraged that laws be passed to protect children from exploitive labor practices.

After World War II, Cold War politics motivated the US government to restrict the power of organized labor and laws like the Taft-Hartley Act,  made it illegal for unions to contribute to political campaigns. Today this idea seems ludicrous to many as the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allows corporations to donate to campaigns.

Additionally, the law severely limited the ability of unions to encourage striking, saying that the practice formed a threat to national security. The bill was also influenced by Macathism and required that union leaders state that they were not tied to the Communist Party and that they had no intention to overthrow the government. This provision of the bill was deemed unconstitutional in 1965, but by then, many had been accused of communist loyalties and been removed from their post.

Today the impacts of the Taft-Hartly and other anti-union bills are clear as union membership in the US has hit the historic low of 11.9%.

How do countries celebrate?

Countries mark the day in different ways and often relate to their labor and social struggles. For example, in South Africa, the day is tied to the fight to end apartheid. In Kenya, the government announces and approves an increase to the countries minimum wage each year.

In many other countries, the day is filled with parades and events that feature politicians and labor organizations. Many events and protests are also organized to rally support for labor reforms.