May 1 is International Workers’ Day, a day where many countries choose to commemorate the working class. But for most people in the U.S., it’s just another Tuesday.
Sure it gets its own Google Doodle, but as the rest of the world claims May Day as its Labor Day, Americans choose to celebrate it in early September. How come?
Thank former president Grover Cleveland for the disparity.
It’s kind of a complicated story, but International Workers’ Day actually got its start in the U.S.
It was on this day in 1886 that the eight-hour work day was supposed to begin. Some business owners resisted that, though, and workers in Chicago (many of whom were immigrants) began a strike for the reduced hours. Three days later, at a labor rally in Haymarket Square, a bomb exploded, killing 11 people.
Socialists in Europe seized on the movement a few years later, choosing the day to honor the “Haymarket martyrs,” and the day began to spread.
There was a strong anti-union movement after the incident in the U.S., though, with immigrant groups coming under suspicion, especially the Bolsheviks. It led to the first “red scare” in the U.S.
When time had passed and the U.S. began to seriously consider a worker’s holiday, officials were divided on whether to distance themselves from May Day because of its violent associations or to honor the movement’s origins. Cleveland, ultimately, felt a May 1 labor holiday would become a memorial to the Haymarket bombing, so threw his support behind the alternative September date. It was adopted as a federal holiday in 1894.
Much of the rest of the world, though, still observes May 1 as the day to celebrate workers (and, in some countries, for protest movements focused on worker rights). Here, May 1 is officially called “Loyalty Day” now—a day set aside “for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” (Dwight Eisenhower oversaw that proclamation, again in the midst of a red scare, in 1921.)
We might all disagree on International Workers’ Day, but as far as May Day itself, it’s easy to bypass the political implications of that. Many of the celebrations of the occasion around the world are less labor focused and more centered as a spring festival.