Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

August 28, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

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

Yes, Monday 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.   This weekend millions of Americans will gather around the grill, at the shopping malls, and football fields, to officially end the summer of 2014. 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, love, 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 on Monday 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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§ 11 Responses to Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

  • George Bernard Sperber says:

    Well, I knew why Labor Day is on the first day of May all over the world, except in the US, where this date gets preferably forgotten. But you did not explain why in the US the first day of September was chosen for this feast…. Why?

    • Thank you George. I did mention that Labor Day is considered the “last day of summer” by the American people. It is one of the very last days that they can enjoy the outdoors before the cold winter. This is why it is observed in September.

  • Hartmut says:

    May 1 has become an extra vacation day. Most in Europe don’t think and commemorate it as a labor day by participating in the public rallies convened by labor unions, but as a day for excursions into the nature, by BBQing in backyards, etc..Some local newspapers may bring up historical stuff of the labor movement.

    Contrasting the celebration of the Labor Day, regardless of date, with Thanksgiving, Passover, Independence Day. Bastille Day in France, and even the more ancient Christmas Day, people tend to think and talk about the meaning of these holidays than the Labor Day.


  • Alison says:

    Well, in the UK we don’t technically celebrate May 1st at all because of our habit of moving most bank holidays to a Monday so that we can’t “faire le pont” like the French. So we have a bank holiday on the first Monday in May instead, but it always used to be referred to as the May Day Bank Holiday, May Day also being May 1st. It’s only fairly recently – I assume during the last Labour government – that the early May BH has become linked with Labour at all.

  • George Bernard Sperber says:

    Your answer, Mr. Rosado, means that you knoiw no historical reason for celebrating Labor Day in the US on the first day of September, just a, let’s say, calendar reason?: That is new for me! And I, as a Brazilian, agree with all the colleagues who insisted in saying that the adjective American should always include all of us who live in Center and South-America. But Yankees have appropriated this word for themselves, and generally ignore our condition as Americans. By the way, the word “America” has nothing to do with the origin of the US, but is an inheritance of that Italian guy named Americo Vespucci…

    • Dear George, thank you for your comments. I explain in the blog that the Monday in September was picked because it is the end of summer. The official name of the U.S. Is the United States of America. American culture tends to shorten everything and that is how it became America. There are countries in the world where the Americas are considered as two continents (North and South) The United States is one of them. Something similar to Europe that is a different continent from Asia. I am not saying that this is good of bad. It is just a statement of facts, and it is mentioned in this blog as part of the interpreter’s duty to learn other cultures, not as a political point because this is not a political blog.

  • Lori says:

    Actually, in Mexico it was not celebrated officially until 1923 after the reforms of the Mexican constitution of 1917. It is not a commemoration of the events in Chicago. One could argue that the recognition of the laborer and labor laws in Mexico grew out of the events that took place at the Cananea mine in Sonora in 1906. The labor dispute resulted from the fact that the U.S. counterparts doing the same jobs were paid a much higher salaries. Arizona Rangers put down the strike and Porfirio Diaz essentially condoned the actions of the U.S. on Mexican soil with ended with the deaths of 20 people. This would be a prelude to the Mexican revolution. So, all nations celebrating on May 1st are not commemorating the events of the Haymarket riot. And, yes, here it is a holiday; banks, federal, state and municipal offices, as well as schools are closed on this day.

  • Lee Eisenberg says:

    The official refusal to celebrate May Day is often seen as an attack on labor. In the US, May 1 is celebrated as Loyalty Day, although it’s not a national holiday and most US citizens are unfamiliar with Loyalty Day.

  • Tatiana Sokolikova says:

    I have carefully read both the article and the comments and have a strange feeling of being a bit … slow with this. You are saying that being the last day of summer, this day is an excuse for an outdoor meal. No objections, it sounds most reasonable to use the last sunny days for a party. But WHY was it called Labor Day?! I mean from the beginning! You know, someone up in D.C. decides to give people an extra day off and is thinking of a name for it – why not Turn-Of-The-Season-Day, or Prepare-For-School-Day? You know, why LABOR Day. There must have been something else in mind when the name was being chosen. You might want to have another look into the issue, because otherwise it sounds very much like someone blindly pointed at the calendar and said “okey, on this day we’ll have a paper-doll national celebration because we all played paper dolls when we were kids”. You know, sounds like a blindly chosen name for a blindly chosen date…

    • Thank you for your comment Tatiana. It is called Labor Day because this holiday was created to celebrate those who have contributed to the country’s social and economic achievements with their work. It is a way to thank those who worked all year.

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