Why do we celebrate Labor Day in September in the United States?

September 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

Dear Colleagues,

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

Yes, this 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 this year’s summer.  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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