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This Day in Resistance History: the First Labor Day – September 5, 1882

September 5, 2012

On this day in 1882, an estimated 30,000 people marched in New York City in the first US Labor Day event.

Organized by the Knights of Labor, the event was meant to celebrate the accomplishments of labor unions and to draw attention to the ongoing struggles that workers faced at that time.

The first Labor Day parade was taking place amidst the struggle for an 8 – hour work-day, the right to organize in the workplace and the fight against child labor.

Labor Day celebrations then began popping up all across the country. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday and by the time the federal government made it a national holiday in 1894, 23 states had already made it official.

Closer to West Michigan, there is evidence that Labor Day was being celebrated as early as 1886. There is evidence that Labor Day was celebrated in Grand Rapids in 1886 and in Kalamazoo, as is reflected in this picture of workers dressed for the parade.

However, as the years went by, the significance and origin of Labor Day became an issue that reflected the tension between the more radical unions and what some scholars refer to as “business unions.”

Most sources credit the Knights of Labor for organizing the first Labor Day events in many cities across the country, but by the time Labor Day became a federal holiday, there was a dispute about its origin.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), under the leadership of Samuel Gompers, was claiming that the first Labor Day parade was organized by a member of the AFL in New York. Gompers wanted to give credit to his union for the founding of Labor Day as one more means to demonstrate to the US capitalist class that he was not anti-American.

Gompers believed in the American Capitalist system and never wanted to overthrow it, unlike some of the more radical, international unions of the late 19th and early twentieth century.

The AFL approach most often meant negotiating with company owners and focusing on wages, instead of making stronger demands and using tactics such as strikes and sabotage. This history is well documented in Paul Buhle’s book, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

This tension between radical and business unions was also reflected historically as the business unions would not celebrate or commemorate the 1886 Haymarket riot and its holiday on May 1, despite the fact the May 1st had become an international labor holiday.

As union continued to win gains such as the 8-hour work-day, ending child labor, worker compensation and the right to collective bargaining, Labor Day continued to be a celebration of those rights and gains.

After WWII, with the push for greater nationalism in the US, the anti-Communist Red-Scare and the merger of the CIO with the AFL, most of the radical sectors of the labor movement were all but repressed or co-opted. It is at this point that we begin to see a great alliance between big labor and the Democratic Party, which was eventually reflected in the inclusion of partisan politics into Labor Day celebrations.

It is important that we understand this history, not just in some nostalgic sense, but as a framework to move forward and reclaim the radical, independent power of working class people to make change. All of the gains that have been made by labor unions over the years have come about because of direct action – strikes, pickets, boycotts, sabotage and an independent labor press. The victories of organized labor never came about through electoral politics.


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