Labor Day might be celebrated on different days around the world; but the International Workers Day is celebrated on the 1st of May every year. So, what makes the day special to celebrate? What is the historical origin of the day?
Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country.
The first Labor Day was first celebrated on Tuesday, 5th September 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union. Planners wanted to call attention to abusive employer practices, such as child labor, and were seeking laws to promote the idea of a 10-hour workday.
The Central Labor Union (CLU) organised more than 10,000 workers in a march from City Hall, near Wall Street, to Union Square, two miles uptown. The purpose of the parade was to exhibit to the public ‘the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organisation.’ It was followed by a street festival for the workers – most of whom were on unauthorised leave and risked being fired – and their family.
CLU held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on 5th September 1883. Then in 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday for workers and CLU urged similar organisations in other cities to join the bandwagon and celebrate a ‘workingmen’s holiday’ on that date. The idea spread as labor organisations grew, and in 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centres of the country.
More than 100 years after the first Labor Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers.
Some records cited that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honour those “who from rude nature delved and carved all the grandeur we behold”. However, Peter McGuire’s place in Labor Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many also believed that Matthew Maguire was the one who founded the holiday.
Matthew Maguire is the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey. Some records mentioned that Maguire proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.
While there are still debates on who was the true pioneer of the International Labor holiday, it is clear that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic.
Some countries associate May Day with International Workers Day; however May Day is more of a light-hearted celebration of spring in some places.
It was at a gathering of socialists in Paris in 1889 that May Day was established, as a commemoration of the “Haymarket” incident in Chicago in early May of 1886. Haymarket incident is described as four strikers who have been killed at a manufacturing plant following a citywide protest in support of the eight-hour day, and a rally at Haymarket Square was planned to honour the victims.
In communist countries, such as The People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and offshoots of the former Soviet Union, May Day is purportedly a salute to workers. But it typically is overshadowed by elaborate military parades.
In the past, Labor Day was celebrated by having a parade, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. But the celebration has undergone a change, especially in large industrial centres where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change is a shift to a more safe expression by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics, and government officials to give a wide coverage in newspapers, radio, and television.
Today, countries celebrated both May Day and International Workers Day either by having a huge party or strike. In Finland, for example, people celebrate May Day by gathering and partying while having their favourite drink. Meanwhile, Malaysia commemorated Labor Day by doing strikes for social security coverage and minimum wages in 2018.
The vital force of labor in the past, particularly during the 1880s, added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known. It has also brought us closer to the realisation of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. Therefore, it is appropriate that we, as a nation, pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership.
Read also: Celebrating Labour Day in Time of Crisis