Labor Day

1st Monday in September 

I have to say the name’s misleading. The whole point is not to labor on Labor Day, isn’t it? Shouldn’t it be Leisure Day or Play Day? But then I guess it would defeat the purpose of honoring the workers–past and present–who make it possible to BBQ on this day.

Scores of countries and billions of people celebrate Labor Day on May Day (May 1) but the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand just had to be different.

By the 1880s May 1 had become a traditional day for workers to unite and go on strike, strikes which led to progressive social measures, but also violence between workers and police. The most notable example being the Haymarket Riot of 1886.

The Anarchist Riot in Chicago, Harpers Bizarre, May 15, 1886
The Anarchist Riot in Chicago, Harper's Bizarre, May 15, 1886

Pressure was on for the creation of a Federal Holiday honoring the workers of America. President Grover Cleveland wanted to appease workers’ organizations by creating an official Labor Day, but the political establishment was afraid a May 1 holiday would strengthen socialist solidarity and forever bring attention to violent May Day clashes like Haymarket, leading to much such demonstrations in the future.

In 1886 Cleveland instituted a national Labor Day, but moved it to the first Monday in September. (The Central Labor Union of New York had been celebrating an autumnal Labor event since 1882.)

It worked. Today few Americans recall the Haymarket riots, but we use Labor Day to bid farewell to the glorious days of summer. Labor Day means back-to-school for kids, don’t wear white for the fashion conscious (although this too is fading), and time to host that last big barbecue before bequeathing the grill back to the spiders.

At least till Memorial Day

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