Why does the U.S. celebrate Labor Day in September?

Updated September 7, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

The Question:

Most of the world has a labor holiday on May 1. Why does the U.S. celebrate it in September? Is this just America being "different"?

The Answer:

The origin of the September date for Labor Day is pretty well known. Sometime in the 1880s, one of two labor leaders in New York (it's unclear which) proposed a holiday honoring labor in September. The reasons given included honoring a successful labor demonstration, and that the weather in early September is very nice.

A decade later, the country's largest strike occurred. The Pullman Strike, protesting horrible working conditions for railway workers, spread across the U.S. and involved 250,000 workers. The federal government forcefully broke up the strike and arrested its organizer (future socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs). They decided to recognize the September Labor Day as a move to pacify the still-angry workers.

The May Labor Day is, funnily enough, also based on a U.S. labor conflict. The Haymarket Affair, or the Haymarket Riot, began with a labor demonstration in Chicago. The demonstrators occupied Haymarket Square in support of implementing an eight-hour workday. The police went to break up the protest when a bomb went off and killed one of the policemen. The police started shooting at the protesters. They later accused eight local anarchists of being responsible for the bombing. Although the evidence suggested that none of them threw the bomb, seven of them were given death sentences.

Haymarket became a symbol for the Labor movement, especially among anarchists and Marxists. The Communist International voted to honor May 1 as a holiday celebrating Labor (also known as International Workers' Day). The United States government chose the September date as an alternative to the Communist-supported May date. But, it's not uncommon for U.S. leftists and unions to recognize or celebrate the May 1 date.

-The Editors

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