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Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union march in a Labor Day parade. Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University

Members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union march in a Labor Day parade. Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University

  • The Radical Lore of Labor Day

    Labor Day started with a BANG!

    Workers and their allies took to the streets, speeches and rallying cries rang out, red flags waved: the solidarity was palpable. In Chicago, 80,000 workers marched. In New York City, there were 30,000. Nationwide, some 300,000 laborers participated in the strike. Anarchists stood by socialists who stood by nationalists who stood by unionists—all surrounded by police officers ready to suppress the demonstrations if things got out of hand.

    But on May 1, 1886, nothing was too rowdy or too violent, so the workers marched on and spoke their truth to power. They commiserated over dismal working conditions and demanded justice and consistency in their fields. Their goals were not unrealistic: a livable wage, a safe environment, and eight-hour workdays.

    The first May Day took years to organize largely due to the numerous personalities, organizational structures, belief systems, and ideas that had to be accommodated, or at the very least taken into consideration. In 1881, the Knights of Labor (KoL), a national labor organization, proposed setting aside a specific day to annually agitate for a shorter workday. Theodore Cuno, from the KoL in New York City, suggested that an address on the “emancipation of labor” should be read annually, serving as a “second Declaration of Independence.” John Elliot from the Baltimore KoL suggested the first Monday in September as the annual day to demand the eight-hour workday.

    That day of protest did not occur on the first Monday in September or at all in 1882. The organizers had not yet agreed upon their plans or even a date. John Elliot instead suggested May 1, 1883, which got pushed back to May 1, 1884, which got pushed back again. Finally, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions took the lead organizing a national strike campaign on May 1, 1886.

    Haymarket Riot
    Flyer for the Haymarket protest in English and German
    Wikimedia Commons

    Trade unions and organizations generally supported this day for workers to voice their distress and demonstrate their earnestness. On the first May Day, participants did just that. They vocalized dismay but also took solace in their community. They were irrefutably not alone in their hardships: May Day proved that they had each others’ backs.

    Two days after the first May Day, this comradery was put to the test when several unarmed workers were killed by police officers during a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. Anarchists seized the moment to react, organizing a protest meeting starting at 7:30 p.m. in Haymarket Square the following day, May 4, 1886.

    The meeting was initially slow, beginning about an hour late, but the gradual nature of the occasion soon changed dramatically. Several speakers failed to show up, and rain dampened the mood.

    Although organizers expected a crowd of 20,000 people, fewer than 2,500 attended. Around 10:30, for reasons unknown, someone threw a dynamite bomb into the crowd—the first ever to be deployed in the United States during peacetime.

    Haymarket Riot
    A depiction of the Haymarket Riot from Harper’s Weekly
    Wikimedia Commons

    Local police panicked and shot without direction into the darkness. Seven policemen and four civilians died. The ensuing chaos of the affair is nothing compared to the reverberations still felt through labor movement today.

    After a hasty trial and little evidence, eight leaders in the labor movement were found guilty for conspiring and essentially inciting the violence. The occurrence at Haymarket validated many fears about the radical influence shaping the labor movement, sanctioning anti-union sentiment and political intervention that typically upheld exploitative labor practices.

    Workers in America and internationally were at a pivotal moment as the labor movement’s perceived affiliation with militancy and disorder expanded. In 1889 at a labor conference in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor striving to reclaim the history of Haymarket recommended that May 1 serve as an annual holiday in remembrance of the injustice suffered there. In nearly every industrial nation, May Day became Labor Day. Workers use this holiday to remember their history and express their grievances, drawing on one another for support and strength. Internationally, May Day is a day of action and formalizing discontent. 

    Domestically, the United States has phased out May Day in favor of our favorite late-summer three-day weekend holiday: Labor Day. The shift from the onset of May to the beginning of September was deliberate and tactful. Union leaders and less radical labor activists made the decision to identify with law and order, temporally and ideologically distancing themselves from Haymarket and May Day. They dissociated themselves from anarchy and proudly pushed Stars and Stripes onto their new celebrations. Instead of riots and organized chaos, Labor Day’s itinerary includes parades and picnics. Workers who favored Labor Day sought to define themselves as model citizens, willing to work within a greater system and worthy of dignified working conditions.

    1908 Labor Day parade
    Women’s Trade Union League in New York City’s Labor Day parade, 1908
    Photo by Bain News Service, courtesy of the Libary of Congress

    Labor Day became a national holiday after June 1894 and another deadly strike. Incensed with sudden pay cuts and layoffs, Pullman railroad workers in Chicago pushed back. Their strike lasted longer than expected, and U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney issued the first ever federal injunction against a strike. The National Guard was summoned to end the strike, and about twenty-six people were killed as the subsequent riots were violently suppressed by government entities.

    In the wake of the Pullman Strike, class tensions were aggravated and workers’ trust in the government was weak. The federal government’s sympathies seemed to be firmly with employers, leaving employees further marginalized. Six days after the worst of the strike, as an olive branch, President Grover Cleveland declared the first Monday in September to be a national holiday for working men, federally recognizing Labor Day.

    Over the past 125 years, America has consistently observed Labor Day with patriotic and familial celebrations. The labor unions’ alliance with law and order continued, and workers developed identities consistent with tactful action, national pride, and commodity consumption. From its radical conception based in boundary-defying dissent as May Day to the celebratory diplomatic derivative that is Labor Day, an annual workers holiday is a necessary step in the right direction. Without having the time and space to reflect on hardships overcome, or strategizing for a more just and sustainable future, employers and corporations could easily continue to take advantage of their workforce.

    It may seem strange that our present Labor Day is filled with leisurely activities, but sometimes a day off needs to be a day off. Barbequing with friends and family, swimming, day-tripping, shopping, watching sporting events, and partying help build community and shape identity. Labor Day may have conformed to systemic regulation and relaxation, especially through the 1990s when people wanted to establish themselves as consumers of leisure, but giving people space to organize their thoughts, empathize with friends, and strengthen relationships is the way to build a stronger, revitalized labor movement that is capable of effective collective action. Whenever we need inspiration, we can turn to the events and activists that shaped the landscape of labor.

    1908 Labor Day parade
    1960 Labor Day parade
    Photo courtesy of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University

    Sean Tomlinson is a production assistant for the National Council for the Traditional Arts and previously worked for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology/anthropology and German, as well as a deep passion for labor lore. None of her current work would be possible without the campus custodians and engineers, faculty welfare committee, and SWU/USAS Local 888, who opened her eyes to the realities of employer practices and workplaces cultures, while sharing the power of solidarity.


    Adelman, William J. “The Haymarket Affair.” Illinois Labor History Society, n.d.

    Chase, Eric. “The Brief Origins of May Day.” Industrial Workers of the World, 1993.

    Haverty-Stacke, Donna T. May Day: America's Forgotten Holiday. New York, NY: NYU Press, 2008.

    History of Labor Day.” U.S. Department of Labor, n.d.

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