Today Is Labor Day, Whether America Knows It or Not

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Happy International Workers Day, or, as it’s also known throughout much of the world, Labor Day.

It is not, notably, Labor Day in the United States. Instead, it is “Loyalty Day,” a stupid holiday that exists mainly to anger people who hate whomever the current president is. We Americans already have a Labor Day, on a different day, right? Yes, we do: A sham Labor Day. A Labor Day for scabs and stool pigeons and bosses.

International Workers Day is as American a holiday as there is. It commemorates, in part, the Haymarket Riot, a bloody 1886 clash between striking workers and Chicago police that was among the most consequential battles in both American labor history and the international fight for the eight-hour workday. A few years later, the International Workers Conference called for a worldwide strike in support of the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890, and from then on, May 1 was recognized annually, as Rosa Luxemburg explained in a brief history of the day:

The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.


So where, then, did “our” Labor Day come from? It came from Grover Cleveland, who, seeking reelection, wished to appease labor without encouraging workers to actually fight for better conditions. He made a national holiday out of a competing proposed Labor Day, in September.

Years later, May Day become associated with communists, and then with the Soviet Union, leading defanged American unions to largely abandon it. In the 1920s, the American Federation of Labor joined Herbert Hoover in attempting to rebrand May 1 as “Child Health Day.” Then came “Loyalty Day,” invented and codified during the Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s. As Ryan Cooper explained a few years back, it has never really caught on.


But today is the real Labor Day, and it shall be recognized as such until, as Rosa Luxemburg says, the working class of the world has won its deliverance. It is entirely appropriate that the true Labor Day is not the state-sanctioned one. May Day is meant for striking, and you can’t strike on an official three-day weekend.