For Labor Day Weekend, here’s a reminder about the history of this commemoration in America (reposted from 2011).
Successful politicians exploit, buy off, and sell out the movements that sometimes buoy their campaigns. This American story is an old one, and it’s one that leaves activists disappointed, wary, and cynical,
even especially about the politicians who do the most for them.
[Recall that candidate Abraham Lincoln promised to put the preservation of the union higher on his list of priorities than ending slavery, and that abolitionists criticized President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation (issued after two years of war), which ended slavery only in the territories that had seceded.] And many do far less.
So, why is the American day to commemorate Labor held at the end of the summer, months after May Day, the workers’ celebration day virtually everywhere else in the world? How do you turn a movement by creating an occasion for a cook-out?
President Grover Cleveland, a hard-money Democrat, and generally no friend to organized labor, signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday at the end of June in 1894, at the height of the Populist movement, and just after the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, had launched a boycott and strike, starting in Pullman, Illinois. Protesting the Pullman Palace Car Company’s treatment of its workers, including harsh wage cuts, railway workers across the country refused to handle any train hauling a Pullman car.
The Federal government used an injunction, then troops, to battle the union and get the trains moving. In July, just after announcing a national day to celebrate the contributions of American workers, President Cleveland ordered federal marshals–along with 12,000 Army troops, into Chicago to break up the strike. Workers fought back, and 13 workers were killed, and at least several dozen injured. Debs was tried for violating an injunction, and went to prison, where he discovered the writings of Karl Marx. Clarence Darrow provided a vigorous, but unsuccessful, defense.
Debs would go to prison again, most notably for his opposition to US entry into World War I, and would run for president five times as a Socialist.
But I digress. President Cleveland created a distinctly American Labor Day, explicitly not on May 1, which had already been the occasion for vigorous and disruptive workers’ activism. (Read about the Haymarket affair.) May Day remains the day for international workers mobilization. Instead, our Labor Day is a time to mark the end of summer by cooking outdoors and shopping for school supplies.
The US Department of Labor’s website gives credit for Labor Day to the American worker, but makes no mention of the Pullman Strike or the Haymarket demonstrations.
So, commemoration can actually be a way to neuter the historical memory. See our discussions of commemorative days for Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Fred Korematsu, all significantly more difficult characters than what they’ve come to represent.