Labor’s Days Explained

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Not usually considered a union-friendly society, the United States recently celebrated its 109th annual Labor Day. In recent years Labor Day is mostly a matter of picnics and barbecues, but it could be more. We had our own enthusiastic observation of labor’s vital role here in Champaign-Urbana. For the second year in a row, the Champaign County Federation of Labor sponsored a successful Labor Day parade and related festivities at West Side Park. Champaign’s Labor Day parade, successfully resurrected last year after many years of dormancy, is on its way to becoming a new tradition. The event had all the requisite high school bands and trucks, as well as signs and banners conveying Labor’s political agenda and issues of vital concern like the Living Wage. What we did not have was much discussion of what is actually happening to Labor in the United States (or Champaign-Urbana) at the beginning of a new century. Everyone had a good time, but did we really understand what we were doing?

By far the most important workers’ holiday internationally is May Day — the first day of May, not the first Monday in September. We also have an annual celebration of this more radical holiday in town with speeches on the Quad by folks from labor and socialist groups and post-modern protest music by Paul Kottheimer, who manages to blend the historic with the funky. The Altgeld Hall chimes, normally reserved for patriotic airs and Illini fight songs, ring out with the Internationale and picket line tunes.

These two holidays have different origins and meanings. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s radical May Day that has the firmest roots here in the Midwest. How did we get two different holidays and what do they represent?


Celebrated for centuries in many parts of the world as a time of rebirth, May Day had its own rebirth as a worker’s holiday in the late nineteenth century — not in Europe but out on the Illinois prairies. Throughout the 1880s workers poured into labor reform organizations, demanding equal rights and a curb on corporate power.

The Knights of Labor symbolized, and to a considerable degree, organized this great labor upsurge. Pursuing a program of education, self-improvement, workers’ cooperatives, electoral politics, and ultimately, the abolition of the wage labor system, the Knights captured the imaginations of American workers and reformers. They recruited nearly a million workers by 1886, including thousands in Illinois manufacturing and mining towns. A newer smaller organization, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later renamed the American Federation of Labor) focused on trade union organization and strikes, particularly among skilled male workers.

When the nascent Federation called for a general strike on May 1, 1886 in support of the radical demand for an Eight-Hour Day, the Knights, a variety of socialist and anarchist groups, and workers throughout the country joined the movement. The response was particularly strong in midwestern industrial cities and coal mining towns, however, and the movement found its heart in Chicago where about 80,000 workers struck, crippling the city’s industries.

Police and industrialists moved quickly, attacking workers and their organizations. On May 3, police fired into the ranks of Eight-Hour strikers at the International Harvester Works, killing at least two and wounding many more. The International Working Peoples’ Association, an anarchist group, called a protest meeting for the next day at Haymarket, the city’s wholesale market area just west of the Loop. When a bomb exploded killing one policeman and mortally wounding others, the cops opened fire. The fusillade killed one protester instantly and wounded several other people, including policemen. The “Haymarket Riot” signaled a massive attack on labor and civil liberties. The contemporary press was full of the term “anarchist,” which was used loosely in somewhat the same fashion that the word “terrorist” is employed today — to associate dissidents and radicals in the public mind with meaningless violence. A fear gripped respectable society, providing support for an extreme political reaction that helped employers to break the back of the radical labor movement in Chicago and elsewhere around the country.

Eight labor radicals were eventually convicted of a “conspiracy” leading to the “riot”. In fact, there was no evidence that any of them were responsible for the violence at Haymarket. Rather, their crime was to demand basic rights for American workers and to project the vision for a new, more democratic society. Four of these men were hanged in November 1887 and another committed suicide in his cell. The remaining four were imprisoned but later pardoned in 1893 by Governor John Peter Altgeld, who noted the striking lack of evidence against them and the hysteria that surrounded their trial. (Altgeld, who advanced the vision of a great democratic “peoples’ university” in Champaign-Urbana, is fondly remembered by some at the University of Illinois as a supportive governor who opened the way for a variety of new programs by vastly expanding the university’s budget.) Altgeld’s courageous pardon ended his political career.

Throughout the world, the “Chicago Martyrs” became the focal point for labor protests, and May Day emerged as the international working class holiday, proclaimed as such officially by the Socialist International in 1889. Even in the U.S., the Depression era witnessed large May Day parades and celebrations in Chicago, New York and other cities. Just after World War Two, with millions of American workers once again on strike, the European Left gathering steam, and the Cold War just beginning, Congress declared May First “Loyalty Day” in 1947 – a clear effort to displace the popular radicalism associated with the celebration. Throughout the Cold War years the communist regimes did their part to discredit May Day by rolling around tanks and missiles and displaying their armies out on Red Square and Tiananmen Square. For them, it became a day to confront the swelling American military machine with their own power. In the United States during the 1950s, May Day marchers were equated with the international communist conspiracy and often attacked. Not surprisingly, the May Day tradition declined here. Still, workers took to the streets in most other parts of the world on May First, which they continued to claim as their own.


Labor Day was established as an official holiday by act of Congress and signed into law in September 1894 by President Grover Cleveland – the same Grover Cleveland who had dispatched Federal troops to Chicago and other railroad towns to crush the Pullman Strike just two months earlier. Labor Day is usually thought of as a conservative alternative to May Day, and it was certainly promoted as such during our various Red Scares and the Cold War. But Labor Day too has deep roots in the workers’ movement. Long before Congressional action, New York’s Central Labor Union launched a “Great Labor Parade” on September 1, 1882 and the event gradually spread through the labor movement. Based particularly on the trade unions, Labor Day lacked the radical vision of May Day, but it was originally intended by labor activists to demonstrate both the power and the grievances of organized workers. Unions took the opportunity to outline their program – shorter working hours, for example, and the legal right to organize and bargain collectively. It’s not the founders’ fault if the holiday has lapsed into baseball tournaments and long-winded speeches by political candidates representing business – not labor – interests.
For a long time now, American labor has embraced this more conservative tradition and run away from its radical past. But if labor’s celebrations have any significance beyond hot dogs and patriotic music, it lies in this history and the lessons we might find there. Weakened and under almost constant attack by business and conservative politicians, the time for labor complacency is long past. Workers need to maintain their own traditions and culture and employ them to help reinvigorate the movement. A new, more diverse and progressive labor movement can still emerge from the vision embodied in the histories of Labor Day and May Day. If the new labor movement springs once again from fertile fields of the prairies, this would be only fitting.

Although an academic, Jim Barrett, who comes from a blue collar Chicago family (his Dad was a policeman), has never abandoned his roots. He even teaches a course specifically on “Chicago” as part of the undergraduate curriculum in History. His area of interest is broadly defined as Labor History but specifically he’s interested radical politics, immigration, and race relations of working class populations. His current research, with David Roediger, focuses on relations between the Irish who settled in industrial cities and how they influenced other immigrant populations of Eastern Europeans who would settle later. They are looking at the non-institutionalized ways of being indoctrinated into “American-ism.” Ways such as street gangs and labor unions. His partner at home, Jenny Barrett, shares his interest in unions. She is an organizer for the Union for Academic Professionals on campus. They have lived in Champaign since 1984. They always thought they would eventually retire back to Chicago. Jim says that lately they have been thinking that living is pretty easy right here in C-U.

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