Labor Day: The U.S. Versus Most Of The World

Labor Day is a United States holiday (and one in Canada); most of the world doesn’t celebrate it. No, it’s not that no other country in the world wants to honor workers, it’s just that they’ve got a different day for it. Most of the world celebrates Labor Day on May 1, the International Worker’s Day. Why does the U.S. have Labor Day in the first place and why don’t they use the more universal one? The answer to that is from a few very different things.

In 1882, a labor union called the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor held a celebration they called Labor Day. They continued to celebrate it every year on September 5, and also petitioned President Grover Cleveland to make it a national holiday. Other labor unions of the time were pushing for the celebration to be on May 1, which was set by another group that wanted to commemerate the Haymarket disaster. Cleveland wasn’t eager to commemerate such a recent disaster and feared it would be the cause of even more violence. So he set the day as the first Monday in September. International Worker’s Day was formally created in 1891.

What was the Haymarket disaster? On May 4, 1886, a group of strikers gathered in Chicago to call for an eight-hour work day. In the course of the protest, a bomb was thrown at police. The police responded by shooting and killing four of the protesters.

Since the Haymarket disaster needs to be explained to the vast majority of Americans, anyone can conclude that using May 1 as Labor Day isn’t going to incite mass violence any more. So, why hasn’t it been accepted by now? The answer to that is that International Worker’s Day has been and still is supported by groups that are socialist or outright communist in nature. The organization that called for it was a socialist one, Second International, and the holiday was elaborately celebrated in the Soviet Union. It is still a day of demonstration and protest by those who identify as socialist, communist, or anarchist. The long standing antipathy the U.S. has for those sorts of organizations will likely prevent any future adoption of the holiday.

Lastly, there are several countries that celebrate Labor Day on neither May 1 or the first Monday in September. In Australia it is in March or October, depending on the territory, in the Bahamas it is the first Friday in June, in Jamaica it is May 23, in New Zealand it is the fourth Friday in October, and in Trinidad and Tobago Labor Day is on June 19.

[Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images]

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