Blast from the past: Dark history behind US’s Labor Day

Labor Day is celebrated in USA on the first Monday of September. This article presents the story behind Labor Day and its connection with May Day as celebrated in India and in over 80 countries across the world.

Today, the 3rd September 2018 is celebrated as Labor Day in USA. To most Americans, today is a public holiday when families enjoy barbeques and picnics and shopping deals. Labor Day falls on the first Monday of September every year, since 1882. It honours the contributions of the workers and has its roots in the American Labor Movement. But how much do we know about what went into making this one day a public holiday?

In the late nineteenth century, America expanded in size and scale, leading to mass immigration of workers from the villages to the city. Low wages for long hours stretching upto 16 hours a day was a norm! This coupled with increasing economic divide between the employers and employees, and bad working conditions led to workers forming unions to fight for their rights. Trade unions often made demands through rallies and strikes which gathered momentum and ultimately led to the workers demands been heard and met. Some of the important demands of American Labor Movement were:

  1. 8 hour work day
  2. Safer working conditions
  3. Higher pay
  4. No child labour

American Labor Movement led to similar movements in Europe and the rest of the world and has had a huge impact in shaping and bettering labour conditions around the globe.

To pay ode to this important Movement the US Government chose1st Monday of September to celebrate as Labor Day.

Dark history of Labor Day and the origins of May Day

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor) proclaimed that “Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886”. 2 years later, on May 1st, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses joined the strikes. Soon, things took a violent turn and on May 3, 1886 bomb blasts at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, infamously called the Haymarket Affair, led to bloodshed and violence ensued resulted in the death of 8 policemen and 4 workers with 60 policemen and hundreds of civilians wounded.

American Labor Movement and the Haymarket affair had a huge impact on various countries where similar movements for better work conditions started. Demands for 8 hour work day and against the domination of the working class were made. However, US alienated itself from this date, which it claimed was a radical syndicalist movement which is ironic, given its huge impact on the entire world.

American Labor Day v. May Day

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland carefully chose first Monday of September to observe Labor Day and aligned it with a certain ‘Monster Labor Festival’. A conscious shift was made from May 1st to avoid the glorification of the Haymarket incident as that incident was seen as an affair of bloodshed and miscarriage of justice.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper September 16, 1882.

However, in more than 80 countries including India, May 1st is celebrated as International Workers Day, either officially or otherwise, to commemorate the rise of labour movement which started in America. USA and Canada (for different reasons) celebrate Labor Day in a marked absence of the international community.


In India, the very first May Day/Workers Day was celebrated in Chennai in 1923 and was organised by Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan. It was celebrated at Triplicane Beach and the beach opposite Madras High Court. This was also the first time a red flag was hoisted in India, which in the ensuing century, would go on to symbolise Communism. Though Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan died out in the next two years, the country has continued to celebrate May Day. While it is not classified as a public holiday and it is celebrated with many rallies and public speeches.

Although the calendar days on which Workers day is celebrated in the US and India are different, the commonality between the American Labor Day and May day is that they are both a tribute to the contributions of the workers and to show them respect and gratitude for the contribution they have made for the well-being and prosperity of the society.

DISCLAIMER:The information provided in this article is for educational purpose only. The same cannot be construed as legal advice

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