[First Labor Day parade, Union Square, New York, 1882.]
In case it wasn’t obvious, The New Centrist is a pro-labor blog. Yes, I am an anti-totalitarian (including being an anti-communist) and I may not fit the mold of the standard American lefty labor supporter. However, not too long ago, the labor movement was filled with similarly minded folks. Anti-communist because we realized that in every country where the communists seized power, legitimate, independent trade unionists were among the first to receive a lead breakfast. Communist states abolished independent trade unions and brought them under the direct control of the Party. So, frankly, anyone who said they were pro-labor but supported communism at the same time was seen as a hypocrite by the vast majority of U.S. workers.
Today explicit communists are rare in U.S. unions. Most, thankfully, were forced out by the unionists themselves. But there exists in the U.S. a group of ostensibly pro-labor forces who are anything but. Typically calling themselves “progressives” rather than communists they are actually the inheritors of an ideology derived from the worst elements of the New Left, including a disdain for American workers and American unionism.
One exception to this has been the anarchists, especially of the syndicalist variety. Left-anarchists have continued to carry the torch of the Old Left, including intense attachment to the bloody historical struggles of American workers, especially the Haymarket incident. This event sparked International Workers Day, or, May Day. Anarchists consider this the “real” labor day while the holiday celebrated in the U.S. is deemed “fake.”
In the conspiratorial variant of the narrative, U.S. elites–in government, labor and business–conspired to create this fake labor day in order to discredit the real labor day celebrated around the world on May 1. Here is a typical example:
It is not surprising that the state, business leaders, mainstream union officials, and the media would want to hide the true history of May Day, portraying it as a holiday celebrated only in Moscow’s Red Square. In its attempt to erase the history and significance of May Day, the United States government declared May 1st to be “Law Day”, and gave us instead Labor Day – a holiday devoid of any historical significance other than its importance as a day to swill beer and sit in traffic jams.
But facts have a way of discrediting hagiography. The first labor day, organized by carpenter and labor leader William McGuire, was held in New York City on September 5, 1882. Four years prior to the Haymarket incident, five years before the Haymarket martyrs were hanged.
The Library of Congress notes:
On September 5, 1882, some 10,000 workers assembled in New York City to participate in America’s first Labor Day parade. After marching from City Hall to Union Square, the workers and their families gathered in Reservoir Park for a picnic, concert, and speeches. This first Labor Day celebration was initiated by Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader who a year earlier co-founded the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, a precursor of the American Federation of Labor.
McGuire had proposed his idea for a holiday honoring American workers at a labor meeting in early 1882. New York’s Central Labor Union quickly approved his proposal and began planning events for the second Tuesday in September. McGuire had suggested a September date in order to provide a break during the long stretch between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. While the first Labor Day was held on a Tuesday, the holiday was soon moved to the first Monday in September, the date we continue to honor.
The parade was considered such a resounding success, another event was held in 1883. The following year, the Central Labor Union urged labor federations across the country to join in the “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday each September. By 1885, “Labor Parades” were being staged in a number of industrial centers across the U.S., and municipal ordinances recognizing the holiday emboldened workers to take part.
This is the real history of the Labor Day holiday in the U.S. It is not a fake holiday, designed to dupe presumably myopic American workers. Far from it, Labor Day was organized and instituted by the American labor movement. Remember this the next time some chump in a Che Guevara shirt (or an AK Press hoodie) tells you that the “real” labor day is May 1.