International Workers’ Day is often considered Labor Day’s red-headed step-sibling; a holiday celebrated mostly in Europe far away from our social and economic traditions. However, what many don’t realize is that the day has its origins right here in America.
THE 8-HOUR WORK DAY
Eight hours’ labor, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest has been a foundational part of the American work week since the turn of the 20th century. Before then, workers were often expected to work 10-12 hours a day for six days a week. After decades of effort, workers’ groups throughout the country were able to establish not just the reduced schedule they desired for their fellow workers. They were also able to push for (and were granted) a day for the national commemoration of labor.
In America, this has long been celebrated at the beginning of September. And for exactly the reason that you might have assumed: according to popular understanding, the timing of holiday was initially proposed by either AFL vice-president P. J. McGuire or a machinist named Matthew Maguire to take advantage of the end-of-summer weather and its proximity from both the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving with a parade and a picnic. It was made into a federal holiday in 1894 during the second Grover Cleveland administration, roughly seven years after Oregon established it first as a public holiday in 1887 and has been a part of American life/the symbol of the end of the American summer since.
However, like the metric system, we remain one of the few countries to use that time of year for our celebration of workers, with nearly every other country out of North America doing so today, on the first day of May. This despite the instrumental role that American workers played in the date’s significance.
WHY MAY 1ST?
The date of May 1st, or May Day, was selected by Second International as a way to commemorate what should have been the start of the 8-hour work day in America in 1886 – happening soon after a resolution of the American Labor Federation made calling for such reforms — and fuse it with a more common celebration, May Day. That holiday comes from the festival of Floralia, a celebration of the Roman Goddess of flowers Flora, and is most commonly associated with the maypole around which people dance.
And boy howdy is Floralia, a party: colorful garments are worn, goats and hares are released, while attendees are pelted with beans and sacrifices (of wheat ears) are made to Flora. So, although we’re not telling you to give up the grill for Labor Day, we may suggest stepping up your International Workers’ Day celebration. This way you too can give proper respect to those who made it possible for us to get home to our families after eight hours of work and pelt your neighbors with legumes once you arrive.