The True Story Of Labor Day: Debunking The Myth



Labor Day and May Day: Two Workers’ Holidays

As we enter the Labor Day weekend, many on the left will repeat the myth that Labor Day has no historical significance and is simply a “gift” from capitalist politicians to break up the international solidarity of American workers by providing an alternative to May Day. For many years, I accepted this myth, even while marching with my union comrades in the annual Labor Day Parades in Wilmington, California. Then I learned that the first Labor Day was in 1882, four years BEFORE Haymarket and eight years BEFORE the first international May Day in 1890. How, then, could it have originated as an alternative to May Day? A little historical research revealed a much different, and more complex.

This research showed that both Labor Day and May Day grew out of American labor struggles in the 1880s and, surprisingly, that the same man, Peter J. McGuire (1852-1906), who founded the International Brotherhood of Carpenters, is claimed as the “father” of both Labor Day and May Day! However, as the labor movement developed in the 1890s and into the 20th Century, different factions favored one rather than the other and began to pit the two against each other. But as Yale historian David Montgomery notes, “Little is gained by calling one holiday real and the other phony. We need to know what both have meant to workers.” Otherwise, an opportunity to educate the U.S. working class about its real history will be lost.

Let us, then, review the intertwined history of Labor Day and May Day within the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

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