Editor’s note: The following piece was originally published on this website on August 28, 2014, before Labor Day that year, and we like to rerun it on the worker's holidays annually.
As we enter the Labor Day weekend, many on the left will repeat the myth that Labor Day has no historical significance and is simply a “gift” from capitalist politicians to break up the international solidarity of American workers by providing an alternative to May Day. For many years, I accepted this myth, even while marching with my union comrades in the annual Labor Day Parades in Wilmington, California. Then I learned that the first Labor Day was in 1882, four years BEFORE Haymarket and eight years BEFORE the first international May Day in 1890. How, then, could it have originated as an alternative to May Day? A little historical research revealed a much different, and more complex, story.
Peter J. McGuire, father of Labor Day and May Day and founder of the International Brotherhood of Carpenters
This research showed that both Labor Day and May Day grew out of American labor struggles in the 1880s and, surprisingly, that the same man, Peter J. McGuire (1852-1906), who founded the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, is claimed as the “father” of both Labor Day and May Day! However, as the labor movement developed in the 1890s and into the 20th century, different factions favored one rather than the other and began to pit the two against each other.
As Yale historian David Montgomery notes, “Little is gained by calling one holiday real and the other phony. We need to know what both have meant to workers.” Otherwise, an opportunity to educate the U.S. working class about its real history will be lost.
Let us, then, review the intertwined history of Labor Day and May Day within the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class.
The roots of Labor Day go back to the Middle Ages. During the French Revolution a special day in September was set aside as a labor holiday. In nineteenth-century North America, celebrations, picnics, parades, benefits, and demonstrations of various kinds were held to support shorter hours, to help strikers, and for other labor causes. There are reports of early Labor Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada, in 1872 and in Boston in 1878. The first Labor Day in Australia was celebrated in 1856.