Published: Aug. 31, 2023 By

Labor Day is a widely-celebrated American holiday. For many, the day marks the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. But beyond the opportunity for indulging in barbecues and poolside gatherings, Labor Day holds significant historical weight. 

So what is Labor Day and why do we celebrate it? Ahmed White, a professor of labor and criminal law, answers these questions and more. 

Ahmed White

Professor Ahmed White

What is Labor Day? 

Labor Day is our country's most explicit way of recognizing the contributions of workers in this country and the history of labor in the U.S.

The first celebrations were in the 1880s. They occurred locally and were organized by workers and unions. These holidays were informal and held in the picnic season at the end of the summer, which is one of the reasons we celebrate Labor Day in September. But it wasn’t made a federal holiday until 1894.  

Why do we celebrate Labor Day?

Many of us work. We don't need a holiday to remind us what work is and the difficulties and rewards that come with it. But through the course of a typical year, we don't often get the opportunity to reflect on why we do our jobs the way we do, where our current workers' rights came from, and the price that many people paid to secure those rights for us today. And that’s well worth remembering. 

Why does the U.S. celebrate Labor Day instead of Workers’ Day? 

There's a very complex history there that has to do with the relationship between Labor Day and May Day. Only the United States and Canada observe Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday of September. This distinguishes them from the rest of the world, where Workers’ Day typically coincides with May Day, observed on May 1. 

In May of 1886, the Haymarket Affair unfolded in Chicago. This involved contentious and often violent confrontations between protesting workers, who demanded shorter working hours, and their employers and the police. These clashes led to considerable deaths and even the execution of some labor leaders who were charged with somehow being behind a deadly terrorist bombing at a place in Chicago called the Haymarket.

In the years after the Haymarket Affair, labor leaders in the U.S. advocated for May Day to become Workers’ Day. That effort took off internationally but not here in the United States. This is partly because U.S. government officials were wary of establishing a national holiday that commemorates the workers who had been killed in these clashes. Holding the holiday in September also aligned with how it was already being celebrated in some parts of the country.

Illustration of the tragic Haymarket Affair published Harper's Weekly, May 15, 1886

Illustration of the tragic Haymarket Affair published in Harper's Weekly, May 15, 1886. 

What was happening during the labor movement in the late 19th century? 

One of the most notable things was how violent this period was. Hundreds of people were killed in conflicts between workers on strike and various opposing forces, including employers, police, private security personnel, National Guards and militia groups. 

Some of these instances are still well remembered today because of how violent they were. Take, for instance, not only the Haymarket Affair, but also the 1894 Pullman Strike, which was just as violent and closely preceded the establishment of the Labor Day holiday.

Incidentally, Colorado was no different. There were extraordinarily violent strikes, especially within the mining industry. The 1913–14 coal strike along the Front Range included the Ludlow Massacre near Trinidad, which resulted in around 20 deaths, most of them workers' family members. Another coal strike from 1927 to 1928 claimed the lives of eight workers, including six who were shot dead by state police at a mine in Boulder County. This came to be known as the Columbine Mine Massacre.

Such violence arose mainly out of a refusal on the part of employers and their allies to recognize the rights that present-day workers possess, such as the ability to establish unions, initiate collective bargaining, and engage in protest. 

Why is it important to remember this past?

One reason is that we take much of it for granted, not just in the way of employment and labor rights but our entire legal system and the legacies of labor and conflict.

So many of our country's institutional structures, culture and political legacies have to do with labor and the labor movement. America is a country of workers built by workers. That includes everything we see around us and also things we don't often think about, such as our legal system and the rights we have today.  

What are other ways that people can celebrate and remember the real reasoning behind Labor Day?

I think one thing that people can do is to learn something about the history of labor in this country. There are plenty of books and websites and magazines that chronicle this history. It’s not just a violent and dramatic history, but one that is compelling and essential to understanding this country, where it is today and where it's going in the future.

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