Labor Day: A History Lesson.

8hoursday_banner_1856How many know why we celebrate Labor Day when we do?  Do you know why we don’t celebrate it like the rest of the world on May 1?  Do you know why we have a day to celebrate for labor rather than having say a “businessman day” or “a capitalist day?”

I’ve been looking into the background of J. Edgar Hoover to try to understand what made him into the type of person he became. I am trying to figure out how he showed in his later years a stunning lack of judgment by creating that abominable program that still exists today called the Top Echelon Informant program which gives cover to top level criminals in exchange for information.

This has brought me back to a study of the United States history to understand what the country was like at the time Hoover grew up, joined the Justice Department, became head of the General Investigative Division, and became director of the FBI. It is my belief that a clearer understanding of a man can be made by a close examination of the environment in which he existed.

It was in 1919 while at the Justice Department he was put in charge of ferreting out radicals in America. He did his job well. He was the brains and brawn behind what history has called the Palmer Raids. He was clever enough to let others take the blame for these massive round ups. Later he would deny a significant role in it but recent studies have shown he was the person pulling all the levers.

In studying 1919 I was able to get a view of the country’s attitude toward labor. It was horrible. The major union in the country was the AF of L. Its leader Samuel Gompers spent most of his time condemning the Bolsheviks and professing his love of America. It did little good. Labor was believed to be under the influence of radicals and the strikes taken to improve wages, hours, or working conditions were believed by many to have been undertaken for the purpose of overthrowing the United States.

It became a tool of the big business to label all labor strikes as being directed by Bolsheviks. The American public because of the events in 1919 was more than willing to believe that at the time. These events coupled with the aftermath of the Russian Revolution looking as though it would spread through Europe and the creation of the Third International brought about a huge fear that a Red wave would flood America.

Although that tactic was extremely effective in 1919 it was nothing new. Big industrialists had since shortly after the Paris Commune in 1871 began to denigrating any labor strike as being radical or controlled by anarchists. It never ceased having a strong effect in turning the Ammerican public against labor. Without public support labor had little chance of making gains.

It was during that time that the Haymarket Affair took place in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Three days earlier on Saturday, May 1, 1886, an estimated 80,000 workers marched in Chicago in support of an eight hour work day. (8 hours work, 8 hours play, 8 hours rest) and an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 thousand other workers throughout the United States. On May 3 two a man picketing for an eight hour day outside a factory were killed by the police. A rally was called for Haymarket Square for the night of the 4th.  Near its end the Chicago police were moving in to break it up when someone who was never discovered threw a bomb into the midst of the police and 7 police officers were murdered.

After that 8 people who were involved in setting up the meeting who had no connection with the bomb were arrested. They were put on trial for the police murders. Four would be executed and become anarchist martyrs.

To commemorate that day and the martyrs May 1 thereafter would be celebrated throughout the world as a day for labor to march. That the day originated with labor action in the United States was a well hidden secret. Over the years it became associated with the communists party.

In America we have used the date May 1 to celebrate other events such as Law Day as if we are afraid that recognizing its proper heritage as first having occurred here and that it was the American labor movement that had the first May Day parades.

Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. It was created to appease the working folk who were steaming mad at President Cleveland and the Democrats who for the first time in U.S. history used federal troops against the striking American workers a practice that would become common. Over 30 workers were killed and many more injured.

President Grover Cleveland a Democrat and the leaders of the Democrats in Congress fearing his bold action of siccing American troops against American workers would damage his party’s chances in the mid-term election year of 1894 by alienating labor support. He quickly worked to pass Labor Day legislation in an attempt to mollify the workers. This was passed in six days. It did little good since the Democrats were swept out of office in Congress later that year.

The obvious date for Labor Day would have been May 1. President Cleveland feared that would recall the Haymarket Affair to the people; and being anxious to have the first one prior to that year’s elections he moved it to the first Monday of September. That was a date used by small groups of unionists in New York City and some other places prior to that time but it was enough to provide cover for his true intentions. It has remained there to this day as a day to honor labor even to this date.

Happy Labor Day



  1. Happy Labor Day, MTC!