Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

September 2, 2013 § 7 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For those of you who are reading this blog in the United States: Happy Labor Day!

Yes, today is Labor Day in the United States and we celebrate it as a major holiday; one of those “real” holidays when the banks are closed, the mail is not delivered, and kids stay home from school. I have been asked many times by my foreign friends and colleagues why is it that we celebrate Labor Day in September instead of May 1st. like most countries in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do. Then, the second question that always follows the one above is: “But the labor movement celebrated with an international holiday on May 1st. commemorates the events of Chicago in 1886…”

The fact is that most Americans have never heard of the events of 1886 when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, and the police started to shoot and beat the crowd. In a matter of minutes eight people were killed and over 120 police and civilians were injured.  The police seized the opportunity to arrest eight anarchists, that perhaps today would be referred to as labor rights activists, and the authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit murder even though the police had sparked the riot. Seven of the eight arrested were sentenced to death, and one of the jurors at their trial was a relative of one of the dead police officers.  This is how the labor movement started in the United States.  For a long time the media and government were firmly allied with the business community while labor organizers were viewed as criminals.

Today in the United States labor unions are controversial, and with good reason.  Many of them have been run as criminal enterprises, with deep connections to organized crime; many operate in a blatantly coercive and undemocratic fashion.  Union demands and strong-arm tactics have crippled some American industries and limited the number of jobs.  In today’s America the unions get publicity when they step up to defend a member who should be punished, when the baseball players’ union fights suspension of players who have cheated by using steroids, or when the union protects incompetent teachers in public schools. There are many who support organized labor, although it seems to be less people every day, and labor rights are a good thing that America needed in the 19th. century and still needs today; however, the real perception (well-deserved in many cases) that unions are troublemakers, and the national fight against communism from the cold war days have put these events in Chicago at the end of the 19th. century in the forgotten corner of American history.

Our Labor Day holiday is very different from most around the world. Instead of commemorating a tragic event, we celebrate those who have contributed to America’s social and economic achievements with their work. Since 1882 we have celebrated labor on the first Monday in September as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States. Labor Day has come to be considered by most Americans as the end of summer; the last barbecue of the year, the beginning of football season, the start of a new school year.   Today millions of Americans will gather around the grill, at the shopping malls, and football fields, to officially end the summer of 2013.  It is perhaps the second most American of all holidays (after Thanksgiving that is) because it describes the mind and spirit of the American people.  Regardless of your political persuasion and your support, disdain or indifference towards organized labor, the first Monday in September is a holiday when Americans decided to celebrate work and creativity while most of the world chose to commemorate a tragic event that happened on American soil but is unknown to an overwhelming majority of the American people.  I hope this brief explanation of the reasons why Americans are staying home today celebrating a holiday with the same name as another holiday celebrated abroad, but with a very different meaning and motivation behind it, helps you understand better the United States. Now, without bringing up any political views on the labor movement, I ask you to please share with us when it is that you observe Labor Day in your respective countries and why it is a holiday there.

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§ 7 Responses to Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

  • Christine Thomson Soltero says:

    Thank you for that very informative and well-written explanation! I learned about the Chicago events in school but quite honestly had forgotten all about it. and I really never understood why we chose September instead of May 1st to celebrate and remember. I agree with your comments about what labor unions have become in their 2nd millennium incarnation. Yes, they were very necessary in the beginning when employers were taking terrible advantage of desperate workers and child labor was allowed and there were no such things as safe work places, benefits, health insurance, time off, etc. We can thank labor unions for all of those these.
    I must disagree with only one comment, however. I don’t think Labor Day is 2nd only to Thanksgiving as an “American” holiday. Most people do celebrate it as the last day of summer, the start of new school year, football season, etc. that’s true. But most Americans rreally don’t even think about the old OR the new reasons why we celebrate Labor Day. Believe me, we don’t! Our “most American ” holiday after Thanksgiving has got to be 4th of July, our independence day. We all celebrate that and we all think about what it meant then, and what it means now.WE have parades and marching bands and picnics and fireworks all across the country. We don’t do much at all for Labor Day except stay home from work and maybe have that last BB@Q, as you mention.
    Thanks again for a fascinating commentary,

    • Thank you for your comments Christine. When I call Labor Day the second most American of all holidays I am referring to a day that is special as it represents something unique to the American culture. Independence Day celebrates the most important event in our history, but celebrating a nation’s independence is not unique to the American people or culture. Many countries celebrate their independence while only the U.S. (and some others inspired by the American original idea)observe holidays like Thanksgiving and our very special and different Labor Day.

  • […] Dear Colleagues, For those of you who are reading this blog in the United States: Happy Labor Day! Yes, today is Labor Day in the United States and we celebrate it as a major holiday; one of those …  […]

  • Carmen A. says:

    I had always wondered why it was that the USA did not celebrate Labor Day on May 1st, now I know the reason and I thank you for it.
    I live in Spain, and here we celebrate Labor Day (el “día del trabajo”) on May 1st. It is a day to remember those who have fought for certain basic worker’s rights and to demand the government and the companies not to forget those rights.
    As you are aware, the economic situation in Spain is not very good and, together with cuts in healthcare, education and justice services, the worker’s rights are also being cut. It is not strange here for a woman to be fired just because she is pregnant, or any worker to be fired just to get an intern to do the same work for free. Not to mention gender inequalities; according to a recent study women in Spain earn 23% less than men for the same job, and this difference is widening. This is what Labor Day is about, at least here. We do not have in our minds the commemoration of a tragic event, but a remainder of those who have fought for our rights and all the things that are still worthy of fighting for.

    Thank you for your always interesting posts :-),


  • Dr. J. Boost says:

    Jörn Boost

    Interpreter at Hong Kong Judiciary

    The 1st of May was introduced in memory of the over 200 striking workers who were killed by the National Guard at McCormick’s factory in Detroit in 1886.
    It would be a day of shame to US industrialists and government.
    That’s why it is not recognized!
    By the way, my computer was blocked the moment your article appeared:
    it hit a sore spot.

    The “Haymarket” event was a different one: It is related to the infamous judicial lynching of Sacco and Vancetti – who were anarchists but did not throw any bombs but were convicted and hanged.

    Another bit of shame in US history which is not in school books.

    • The McCormick Harvesting Machine Plant was in Chicago, not Detroit. The physical address was on Michigan Avenue, one of the main avenues in Chicago. At that incident, 7 police officers and 4 workers were killed, not 200. It was the Chicago Police that killed them, not the National Guard. The Haymarket affair took place on the following day also in Chicago. Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants convicted (seemingly wrongfully) for armed robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts in 1927; thirty some years later on a totally-unrelated event.

    • Maria says:

      Bravo, bravo, bravo!! and thanks!

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