Aside from the day off from the work, the parades, and the barbecues, we can expect the display of another annual tradition on Labor Day: the hand-wringing editorials and opinion pieces about the state of the American labor movement. Amongst all the journalistic chaff, you may even find some wheat — like this Washington Post op-ed, for instance, which makes a compelling argument as to why joining a union should be a civil right.

I won’t be making a contribution to that particular “whither labor?” genre, but I did want make some brief remarks about the historical background of the Labor Day holiday. Labor unions are much weaker in the U.S. than in much of the rest of the western world, and historically, the American labor movement has never won all that much institutional support. This is reflected in the history of Labor Day itself. It’s interesting to note that Labor Day is a uniquely American holiday. The rest of the world celebrates its workers on May Day, but the U.S. does things differently, and therein lies a tale.

Labor Day has its origins in two seminal events in labor history, both of which took place in my hometown of Chicago. The first is the Haymarket affair. On May 4, 1886, striking workers at the Chicago’s McCormick Harvesting Machine Company were demonstrating for an eight-hour day. Someone in the crowd threw a bomb at police who were attempting to break up the protest; seven police officers and four civilians were killed. Eight anarchists were convicted on trumped-up charges of conspiracy in connection with the bombing, and four of them were eventually hanged. Their martyrdom galvanized international protests. By 1890, demonstrations were being organized around the world on May 1 in support of the eight-hour day, and in solidarity with the Haymarket martyrs. In subsequent years, May 1 became an international worker’s holiday.

But not in the U.S., however. We Americans celebrate our worker day on Labor Day. Congress made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, following the end of the bitter Pullman strike (which took place in Chicago). The new holiday was intended as a conciliatory gesture toward labor, which had fared badly in the Pullman strike (the feds had intervened on behalf of management). May Day was considered as the date for the Labor Day holiday but was rejected by President Grover Cleveland and by some of the more conservative labor leaders, because of its radical associations with anarchists, communists, and the like.

So that is the story of how the U.S., unlike the rest of the world, celebrates its workers on Labor Day rather than May Day, even though, ironically enough, May Day began in commemoration of an event that occurred on our soil. Clearly, our government has always had a wary and uneasy relationship with the labor movement, and even within the American labor movement itself, many of its most important groups and leaders have taken great pains to distance themselves from the more radical elements in their midst. These conservative tendencies in the American labor movement have not served it well, I’m afraid.

Today at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, there’s a weird little quasi-modernist sculpture commemorating what took place there in 1886, but nothing about the monument, or the locale, suggests that it was ground zero for a world-historic event. But you know what the Haymarket is really well-known for today? Junkies! The place is pretty much junkie central, perhaps because there’s a fairly notorious detox center located nearby. Thus the center of mass protests against economic oppression in one era becomes the dumping ground for the wretched human refuse of our economic system in another.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee