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American Labor Unions Decided May 1 as the Labor Day, But the US Government Changed it to the First Monday of September

Monday, September 2, 2019




What Is Labor Day?

Learn About The History of The Holiday

By Jillian Kramer

Popular Mechanics, 8/23/2019

Most Americans recognize Labor Day as a chance to host their last summer barbecues and to shop retailers' weekend sales—who doesn't love having a hot dog and hunting for the best deals?

But there's much more to know about the history of the holiday before kicking off this year's celebrations.

A Peaceful Protest That Turned Violent

An eight-hour work day wasn’t always the golden standard: Two centuries ago, American workers often clocked double digits at physically demanding and often unsafe jobs—something workers protested on September 5, 1882 in the first Labor Day parade, in which approximately 10,000 people peacefully marched from New York’s City Hall, the New York Times archives show.

In the years that followed, protests continued, says Shannon M. Risk, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Niagara University. “In early May 1886, after a series of peaceful protest meetings, the police attacked protesters in Chicago on May 3,” she says. “A protest meeting was scheduled for May 4, 1886, but a bomb sparked violence and the police rounded up ‘anarchist’ suspects.”

Some of those suspects were sentenced to death, Risk says, and “after these events, labor unions in the United States felt that the state and federal governments did not support workers but rather the corrupt corporate interests.”

Not Always a Late Summer Holiday

Labor unions such as the Knights of Labor continued to fight for shorter work days and safer working environments, and these unions “selected May 1, or ‘May Day,’ as an annual worker’s holiday to recognize the efforts of the unions,” Risk explains.

But in 1893, “the U.S. faced a severe economic recession,” Risk says. “Workers at the Pullman Car factory in Chicago went on strike, as did with workers from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. These workers were joined by many others in 1894, and, like the Haymarket Square Protests, workers were brutally put down—this time by police and federal troops.”

Congress didn’t want to honor May 1 as a holiday, fearing its connection to the Haymarket Square Protests, Risk explains. So, instead, the government decided to give a nod to U.S. workers on the first Monday in September. (May 1 remains International Worker’s Day).

On June 28, 1894, congress passed the act designating Labor Day as the first Monday in September.

The 125th Labor Day

This Labor Day will be observed on September 2, 2019, when “the U.S. Department of Labor celebrates and honors the greatest worker in the world—the American worker,” according to the department’s website. This year’s celebration marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a holiday.

“Unfortunately, some Americans may not realize the origins of either May Day or Labor Day, and how labor movements brought reforms to the workplace by the 20th century,” says Risk.

This Labor Day, keep in mind that the holiday is about honoring the hard workers in our lives, both past and present.  


May Day international observance

Written By The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Updated by John M. Cunningham.

May Day, also called Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day, day commemorating the historic struggles and gains made by workers and the labour movement, observed in many countries on May 1. In the United States and Canada a similar observance, known as Labor Day, occurs on the first Monday of September.

In 1889 an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers, in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago (1886). Five years later, U.S. Pres. Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labor Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official U.S. holiday in honour of workers. Canada followed suit not long afterward.

In Europe May 1 was historically associated with rural pagan festivals (see May Day), but the original meaning of the day was gradually replaced by the modern association with the labour movement. In the Soviet Union, leaders embraced the new holiday, believing it would encourage workers in Europe and the United States to unite against capitalism. The day became a significant holiday in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern-bloc countries, with high-profile parades, including one in Moscow’s Red Square presided over by top government and Communist Party functionaries, celebrating the worker and showcasing Soviet military might. In Germany Labour Day became an official holiday in 1933 after the rise of the Nazi Party. Ironically, Germany abolished free unions the day after establishing the holiday, virtually destroying the German labour movement.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communist governments in eastern Europe in the late 20th century, large-scale May Day celebrations in that region declined in importance. In dozens of countries around the world, however, May Day has been recognized as a public holiday, and it continues to be celebrated with picnics and parties while serving as the occasion for demonstrations and rallies in support of workers.


30 Largest Worker Strikes in American History

By Grant Suneson

24/7 Wall Street, August 31, 2019

Since the early days of American industrialism, wealthy business owners have been able to leverage their wealth and influence into political power, getting politicians to propose and adapt legislation that would favor their business and bottom line.

Individually, workers do not have access to the same type of influence on their own and often even lack the power to influence within their own jobs. As a result, many have banded together to form unions. Unions allow members to have a single collective voice when negotiating for higher pay and improved working conditions. Unions can also prevent members from being fired or let go without severance. These are the jobs with the best and worst job security.

One of the most powerful tools in a union’s arsenal is labor stoppage, or strike, where all members agree to stop working until certain demands are met. Replacing all employees would be costly for a business, and strikes can often force companies to meet union demands. While the intention is a quick resolution, strikes can stretch for months and even years, resulting in millions of cumulative lost working days for the thousands of workers on strike and for their places of work.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as media and archive reports on historic work stoppages to determine the largest worker strikes in American history.

American unions have lost the power they once held. The ruling in the 2018 Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME determined that public sector unions cannot require members to pay “agency fees,” which are similar to union dues. This means that non-union members can more easily reap the benefits of unions without paying into them. Many will likely choose not to pay, and experts predict certain unions, like those for firefighters and teachers, will lose money and political influence. Still, the strength of a union can vary greatly from state to state based on that state’s labor laws.


The most unionized states

By Ellen Dewitt

Stacker, 8/7/2019

Since rising to prominence in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, labor unions have existed intending to protect and advance the rights of workers. U.S. union membership reached its peak in the mid-to-late 20th century when roughly a third of the nation’s workforce belonged to a union as a result of advanced collective bargaining efforts.

Membership has fallen drastically since President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s waged a fierce assault on labor. Massive job losses in the recession of 2008–2009—more than a million construction workers lost their jobs—lowered union ranks further.

Today the nation’s union membership rate is 10.5%, down slightly from 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of people belonging to unions is 14.7 million.

Membership among public-sector workers is about a third, over five times higher than private-sector workers. The highest unionization rates are among workers in protective service jobs like firefighters and educators. Hawaii and New York had the highest union memberships, and North Carolina and South Carolina the lowest. Non-union workers earned less per week—a median of $860 vs. $1,051—than union workers.

Some critics argue that unions stifle competition and leave employers beholden to unreasonable stipulations. More than half of states (27) have right-to-work laws that weaken unions by giving workers a choice of whether to join up and pay dues in a unionized workplace.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling along the same lines. The court decided government workers did not have to pay dues to the union representing them in collective bargaining. Compelling them to pay violated the right to free speech by forcing workers to fund political activities they might not agree with, the court said.

Supporters say unions are critical in providing workers decent wages, benefits, and the job security they deserve. Missouri voters in 2018 defeated a right-to-work proposal law, the first time such a measure lost at the polls.

Stacker looked at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data as of January 2019 and ranked each state according to its percentage of wage and salary earners who were members of labor unions.  


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