Why isn’t Labor Day held in May in the United States?
International Workers’ Day was inspired by events that occurred in the US, but America holds a separate celebration in September. Why?
In the United States, Labor Day has been held on the first Monday in September since the 1880s. There have been efforts to switch it to May to align it with International Workers’ Day, 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 choose 1 May for their day of action. In 1890, in Paris, the Marxist International Socialist Congress chose 1 May to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago.
On 1 May 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 change. More than 400 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 3,000. Those in attendance chanted, marched, and listened to speeches. Towards the end of the day, police moved into the area to disperse 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 60 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, but the event would later 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 US reached its peak in 1950. That year more than a third of all workers in the country 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 McCarthyism and required that union leaders state that they were not tied to the Communist Party and that they had no intention of overthrowing 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-Hartley and other anti-union bills are clear as union membership in the US has hit the historic low of 10.3%.