Why America does not celebrate Labor Day on May 1 - It all started in Chicago...

Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September in America. It is a tribute to the contribution and achievements of American workers.

Only few people know why the first Labor Day became a fact. That could have something to do with the way it all started.

It started when, in the summer of 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions stated that on May first 1886 there would be 8 hour work days. They had 2 more years to implement those 8 hour workdays.

People were writing songs about those 8 hour days:

Chicago had a strong labor movement, which resulted in the nations largest demonstration on May first of 1886. They reported 80,000 workers that marched up Michigan Avenue arm-in-arm, while carrying their Union banners.

On Monday, May the 3rd, the peaceful scene turned violent.  The Chicago police attacked and killed workers that were on strike at the McCormick Reaper Plant at Western and Blue Island Avenues. This attack by police started a protest meeting that was planned for Haymarket Square on the evening of Tuesday, May 4th.

When the Hay Market Meeting was almost over, the about 200 people that were still there, got attacked by 176 policemen. Somebody, no-one knows who, dropped the first dynamite bomb ever used during peace in the history of the U.S. The police started panicking and shot their own men, and it was dark outside as well. Seven policemen died, only one because of the bomb. And four workers died too.

The next day, throughout the USA, the martial law was declared. In the whole world anti-labor governments used this incident as an example to crush local Union movements.  In Chicago, labor leaders were arrested, houses were entered without search warrants and union newspapers were closed down. Eight men were selected to be tried. Most of them weren’t even there at the Hay Market Meeting!  The two-month-long trial ranks as one of the most notorious in American history. The Chicago Tribune even offered to pay money to the jury if it found the eight men guilty.

Seven of them got the death penalty by hanging and one 15 years of hard labor in prison. On the day before the execution Samuel Gompers (he was a Dutch Jew, born in England) came to appeal the Governer Oglesby. This changed the sentence of two of them into life time imprisonment. Four man where hanged on Novemer 11 th, 1887. One other man was found dead in his cell, his head half blown away by a dynamite cap.   In June of 1893, Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the three men still alive and condemned the entire judicial system that had allowed this injustice.

The real issues of the Haymarket Affair were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair trial by a jury of peers and the right of workers to organize and fight for things like the eight-hour day.

In July 1889 a delegate from the American Federation of Labor recommended in Paris (at a labor conference) that May first should be set as the day to celebrate Labor Day, while remembering what happened in Chicago during the Hay Market Affair. Internationally May first is Labor Day, it also is in the Netherlands.

There was dissension about the two dates, for years. After the Russian Revolution the May 1 date was mistakenly associated with communism, and in a protest against Soviet policy, May 1 was first proclaimed Law Day in 1960’s. If it would have been the 1st of May, the Haymarket Affair would have been more remembered too.

The year 1986 marked the centennial of the Eight-Hour-Day movement and the Haymarket Affair.  Folk singer Pete Seeger and a group called “The People Yes,”  planned a nationwide celebration. This event offered teachers a unique opportunity to teach the facts about Haymarket and to correct the distortions and inaccuracies in our textbooks.

If you would like to know more about the Haymarket Affair, I would recommend watching this video. (Produced by Gus Prekezes & Argyrios Marmaras).

For more information, you can click on the following links:





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