As we approach Labor Day — an annual holiday in the U.S. to honor workers — the moment gives us a chance to again enjoy irony in American history. The first Labor Day celebration was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York and held on September 5, 1882. The next year, it was made a regular event. Over the next few years, legislatures in various states passed bills making Labor Day a state holiday in their jurisdictions as well. In 1894, the U.S. Congress made the first Monday in September a federal holiday — the same year that the Department of Justice (DOJ) ended the famed Pullman strike by convincing a federal judge that the government had a right to intervene into labor unrest because it interfered with mail delivery. The leader of the strikers, Eugene Debs, went to jail as a result. This actually helped radicalize him and later he would run for President on the Socialist ticket four times….the last from jail (and he still got 6% of the vote). This move by the DOJ ultimately weakened the power of the unions and placed the government on the side of employers. Such is irony number one.
Today, we rarely mark the holiday with parades of workers and their families. Civic events with speech-making, picnics, and banners are a thing of the past. Nowadays, we just like not having to work to celebrate working. Also, with the slow demise of many blue laws, changes in technology, and the explosion of retail since the late nineteenth century, a good number of working class people — whom the day was meant to honor — do not get to take the day off. Wal Mart stores and distribution centers are not closed. Linemen working for American Electric Power are still on duty (in case of emergency). However, corporate offices are all closed — giving managers a day of rest (from the toil of oppressing workers, Mother Jones would say). Ahh, there is irony number two.
As if this were not enough, there is the distinctly American flavor of the holiday to consider. The rest of the world also honors workers with a holiday, but not on the same day we do. Many other countries mark it on May 1st instead. This was the doing of the Second International association of labor unions and socialist/communist parties. It proposed the holiday at a convention in 1889 in order to commemorate the Haymarket fiasco…in the United States. Workers in Chicago were on strike against the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company and a rally was held in Chicago (at the Haymarket Square) on May 1, 1886, as part of the push for an eight-hour workday. Someone in the crowd threw a bomb (perhaps strikers, perhaps Pinkertons — no one knows) and gunfire erupted. Eight cops were killed (the majority by friendly fire) and eight anarchists (one per cop) were tried for the bombing, which killed one of the officers. Seven of the convicted were immigrants — so they were sentenced to death. The other (a U.S. citizen) got prison time. The four who actually made it to the gallows (one committed suicide to avoid the public execution and the sentences of two others were commuted by the governor) strangled slowly in front of the crowd, as the job was botched. None of these men were actually involved in the bombing — which the prosecution admitted — yet they were the scapegoats meant to assuage public fears and employer anger. Thus, the notion of bomb-throwing anarchists became part of American consciousness and support for the eight-hour workday movement subsided (because middle-class people now associated it with violence). However, while the event undermined support for labor in the U.S., unions and lefties around the world held annual remembrances to mark the injustice and backlash against unionism. Thus, the Second International acted to celebrate gains of the movement on that day every year. So, while we have our Labor Day, we gave them their May Day. In the 1950’s, the Cold War prompted active repudiation of May Day, which the communists supported. Each year, they would honor our labor martyrs, even if we didn’t, and rejecting that publicly became a mark of loyalty for U.S. citizens. This is the third and greatest irony of all.