Labor Day & May Day

Tom Condit tomcondit at
Sun Sep 10 01:04:41 MDT 1995

7Like Jim, Ken and many other North American leftists, I've long

been under the impression that our unique "Labor Day" was some

sort of plot cooked up by labor fakers to divert us from

celebrating May Day.  I just recently found out that it's not

really true.

The call to make the first Monday of September a labor holiday

was first issued by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor

Unions of the United States and Canada (predecessor of the

American Federation of Labor) in 1882, four years before

Haymarket.  (It was also, by the way, the FOTLU which issued the

original call for a general strike for the 8-hour day on May 1,

1886, although in the actual event they weren't the leadership of

it anywhere that I know of.)  This doesn't of course speak to the

motives of capitalist governments in officially adopting it, but

it's clear that it wasn't originally invented to divert attention

from memorializing Haymarket.

The origins of May Day itself, however, may be somewhat more

obscure than the official account.  I remember assuming that it

had older roots when I saw a reproduction of a poster calling for

the 8-hour strike in 1886 which referred to "May 1, the Workers'

Holiday" as if this was some tradition.  Rosa Luxemburg wrote an

article about May Day in which she claimed that its origins lay

in the annual setting of rates by building trades workers at the

beginning of the summer building season.  She also claimed that

it was brought to the U.S. in 1856 by Australian workers, which

doesn't really make sense since May is hardly the beginning of

summer in Australia.  It's clear that she was drawing on either

oral history or accounts unknown to most of us.  Perhaps some

historians in our midst could do a little research on this.

As an aside, the structure of unionism in North America is very

much influenced by the summer building season, in Canada at

least.  Building workers from the True North routinely came south

to the U.S. to work during the sometimes-difficult Canadian

winter, and while there joined U.S. unions.  It was quite natural

for local unions in Ontario and New York, British Columbia and

California, to belong to the same "international" as opposed to

"national" unions, with union cards good at hiring halls on

either side of the border.

Tom Condit

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