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Labor Day and May Day
By David Montgomery, 6 September 1995
I would like to offer a few considerations for those exploring the origins of May Day and Labor Day. First, the Spring, 1986 issue of INTERNATIONAL LABOR AND WORKING CLASS HISTORY was devoted to the origins and spread of May Day. It is worth reading.
Second, to the best of my knowledge it was Michelle Perrot in LES OUVRIERS EN GREVE who first pointed out the basic magic of May day. The first of May was not only well established in European traditions as a day of hope, but it was also in every 19th century industrial country the day on which workers were most likely to go on strike. Workers were usually paid at the end of the month, which made the beginning of the next month a time when they both had a little money to sustain them and could see just how ittle money they had for all their recent work. Moreover, the spring months lead the strike list (at least for offensive strikes, when workers chose the time and place) because the cost of living was lower than in winter and because the building season was just beginning. I would say that everywhere building trades workers played a decisive role in making May 1 strike day. When socialists and anarchists declared a labor holiday, they had one which the working class had already made ready for them. It was a natural fit between political movements and "spontaneous" action.
One way in which this shows up is in the first round of eight-hour day laws and strikes in 1867-68 in the United States. May 1 was the most common deadline -- starting with the great May 1, 1867 strike in Chicago, almost twenty years before the Haymarket Affair.
I like the 1517 idea, but do not think we need to reach quite so far. The point is that this particular day of struggle fit very neatly into the annual pattern of struggle practiced by modern industrial workers in the nineteenth century. A tradition did not need to be invented. A political meaning was infused into an existing pattern of struggle.
Labor Day is a more complicated affair. Among other things, its New York origins are intimately related to power struggles within the Knights of Labor. The first New York day was largely a demonstration to Powderly of the strength of DA 49. But your correspondents are right. First state governments and then the federal government adopted the day in response to workers' demands. The government did not create the holiday. What New York state did do was in response to employers' demands, to make the holiday fall on a Monday every year, rather than on the first of September (which could disrupt the middle of the week).
The late George Pearlman, a retired machinist from Paterson, devoted much of his life to researching the origins of Labor Day. His mission was to prove that Matthew Maguire the machinist was the "father" of the holiday, not Peter McGuire the Carpenter. Frankly, I think that particular dispute meant little: both were members of the same Socialist Labor Party club, which decided to bring the motion to the New York Central Labor Union. Nevertheless, Pearlan's arduous research did supply most of the information that now appears in Labor Department publications, which have been mentioned in this exchange.
Little is gained by calling one holiday real and the other phony. We need to know what both have meant to workers.