Observed in Worldwide
Observed on First Monday in September (United States and Canada); May 1 elsewhere
Observed by General Public

Labor Day is an internationally observed holiday that honors the workers of the world, collectively and individually, for their invaluable contributions to their societies and the well-being of others.
Labor Day is celebrated in most parts of the world on May 1, but the United States and Australia celebrate it on different dates. (In Australia, the date of the holiday is set by the state or territory.) International Labor Day is alternatively known as Workers’ Day or May Day. The American Labor Day, observed in early September, has always been politically more conservative than May Day, which can be quite radical. Both, however, are occasions not merely to honor labor but to build solidarity among workers and to campaign for workers’ rights, better working conditions, and better wages.

Origins and History
If Labor Day is usually held around the world on May 1 and known as May Day, it is important to note that the original May Day observances had no connection with workers or labor activism. May Day festivities can be traced back to prehistoric pagan agricultural festivals that celebrated the vernal equinox. The beginning of May (Maius) was a popular feast time for the Romans, when they worshipped Flora, the goddess of flowers. In her honor a five-day celebration, the Floralia, was held from April 28 to May 1 every year.
The Romans brought the customs and celebration of Floralia to the British Isles when they invaded and finally conquered the region. Gradually, the rituals of the Floralia were merged with those of the Celtic Beltane (“bright fire”) festival, the second most important holiday of the year for the Druids, the early inhabitants of the British Isles. It is a crossquarter day, the halfway point of the sun’s progress between the vernal equinox and summer solstice.
The festival of Beltane was held on May 1. The Druids believed that this day divided the year into two exact halves. The half-year that began on May Day ended with the festival of Samhain, the precursor of Halloween, on November 1. In those days the priests lit a new fire to symbolize the vibrant spring, and herds of cattle were driven through the fire to purify them. Young men and their sweethearts passed through the smoke to invite good luck.
At the symbolic and physical center of May Day rites was the maypole, a Germanic custom.
Some see the Maypole as a phallic symbol and associate it with fertility. Others trace its origin to the Saxon Irminsul (an oak) said to connect heaven and earth. Trees have been worshipped as symbols of life since ancient times, and they played a major part in pagan rites to ensure the fertility of women, cattle, and crops. During the Middle Ages every English village held maypole dances. Fetching the maypole from the woods was an important occasion marked by rejoicing and gaiety. In earlier times it was erected in the center of the village; later it was usually placed in a cleared area, or wherever the celebration was to be held. Customarily the tree, after being stripped of its branches, was decorated with garlands of flowers and long ribbons attached to its crown. The ends of the ribbons were held by young men and women who would dance around the tree in opposite directions, braiding the ribbons over and under, singing all the while, until the tree was wrapped in ribbons. In the 16th century May Day celebrations in England were condemned by the Calvinists; the holiday was revived after the Restoration, but it lacked its original significance and vitality. Gradually, it became a secular day of joy and fun, particularly for children, rather than a religious occasion.
Opinions differ on the true origins of Labor Day, and the specifics cited depend on the country involved. Generally Labor Day as it is known today originated in the late 19th-century with demonstrations demanding better working conditions, including an eight-hour workday. In a 24-hour day, according to labor activists of the time, workers should have “eight hours for work, eight hours for play, and eight hours for what you will.” On April 21, 1856, stonemasons and building workers from construction sites around Melbourne, Australia, stopped working and marched from the University of Melbourne to the Parliament House to press their claims for an eight-hour workday.
They are universally recognized as the first organized workers in the world to demand, and get, a fixed eight-hour work-schedule. Their heroic attempt was a source of inspiration for the American Labor Movement.
By the 1880s, labor struggles in the United States were escalating sharply, as was business and government repression of organized workers, particularly in the wake of the Great Strike of 1877.
Union activism in America was at least 50 years old by then. In the increasingly antagonistic confrontations between capital and labor, in September of 1882 a new umbrella organization of trade unions, with the backing of the Knights of Labor (founded in 1869), organized a massive one-day general strike in New York City, which they conceived as a festive as well as activist Labor Day. It consisted of a huge parade through the city complete with placards and colorful banners, and a mammoth picnic, punctuated with speeches, and seasoned with music and dancing as well as vast quantities of food and drink.
The organizers repeated the affair in 1883 and 1884, which established a precedent for observing Labor Day on the first Monday in September in the United States. The Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor [AFL]) concurred, and soon state governments and then the federal government responded to their lobbying and recognized Labor Day as an official national public holiday in 1894. In part, this concession stemmed from efforts to respond to increasing violence in labor relations and to undermine the most radical elements in the U.S. labor movement, while supporting its most moderate or conservative elements.
In the midst of these turbulent years the Haymarket Massacre occurred. On May 1, 1886, nearly 300,000 strikers nationwide and 40,000 in the city of Chicago took part in demonstrations for the eight-hour working day. These May Day demonstrations contrasted with the more festive September Labor Day exercises. They were more militant and purposeful, an integral part of an ongoing international struggle for workers’ rights. The hub of activities was Chicago, where socialists and anarchists of the International Working Peoples’ Association (IWPA) played a key role in organizing the May Day strikes, which resulted in several clashes with the police.
On May 4 members of the IWPA organized a rally at Haymarket Square to protest police atrocities committed against striking workers on Chicago’s South Side. As police attempted to break up the rally, a bomb exploded in the crowd, police opened fire, and a riot erupted. In the end, seven police officers and two protesters were killed, and several others were wounded. Police arrested eight anarchists on charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
The trial and subsequent execution of four of the men (Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer, and George Engel) based on flimsy evidence has since become a cause célèbre in labor’s continued struggle for justice.
The Pioneer Aid and Support Association, a group organized to support the families of the accused in the Haymarket case, inaugurated the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument on June 23, 1893.
The monument is a 16-foot-high granite shaft atop a two-stepped base, on which are placed two bronze figures representing Justice placing a wreath on the head of a fallen worker. The monument embodies the ideals for which the victims died, a visible symbol of their works and deeds and an icon of the International Labor Movement.
There is an interesting story behind the origin of the Labor Day holiday in the United States, which still falls on the first Monday of September.
Peter J. McGuire (the son of an Irish immigrant who had enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War) earned a meager sum of money as a shoeshine boy and a newspaper vendor, as well as an errand boy to support his mother and six siblings. His family, like those of other European immigrants, lived in nightmarish and appalling conditions in New York City.
Often six families were crowded into a house made for just one. Thousands of immigrant men, women, and children worked 10 to 12 hours a day in unhealthy conditions in factories, with only a short break for lunch. They came to work in spite of fatigue and ill health, fearing that they might be fired otherwise.
At 17, Peter still worked long hours for low pay. He became a working carpenter, and at night he went to meetings and classes dealing with economics and social issues of the day. The main issues pertained to labor conditions. Tired of long hours, low pay, and lack of job security, in the spring of 1872 Peter McGuire and 100,000 workers went on strike. They marched through the streets, demanding a shorter workday. Convinced that an organized labor movement was the only way of ensuring a fair deal for the workers, Peter devoted the next few years to creating and spreading awareness in the American workforce.
The idea of organizing and classifying the workers according to their trades quickly spread around the country. Factory workers, dockworkers, and toolmakers all began vociferously demanding their rights to an eight-hour workday, job security, and good future prospects in their respective trades.
The same idea was endorsed by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions and the Knights of Labor, a labor organization founded in secrecy in December 1869 by a group of Philadelphia tailors led by Uriah S. Stephens. Originally known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, it aimed to protect all those who worked for a living.
Thus to a great extent, Labor Day celebrations in the United States can be traced to the workers’ parades in New York City in 1882 and 1884, during which they vehemently demanded the amelioration of their working conditions. On September 5, 1882, the epoch-making first Labor Day parade was held in New York City. Twenty thousand workers marched down Broadway, carrying banners that read “Labor creates all wealth” and “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for recreation!” After the parade, picnics were organized all around the city; the workers ate Irish stew, homemade bread, and apple pie. At night there was a grand display of fireworks. Within the next few years, the idea of a national Labor Day holiday caught on rapidly across the United States. Finally the date of Labor Day in the United States was established as September 5.
America’s Labor Day is, in a sense, a monument to the Haymarket Massacre. In the wake of Chicago’s Haymarket riots, the general strikes that followed, and the American Federation of Labor’s campaign for an eight-hour workday, a September Labor Day became an acceptable, virtually apolitical alternative to discourage more radical labor holidays or demonstrations. President Grover Cleveland believed that a May 1 holiday would become an opportunity to commemorate the Haymarket incident, for example, lending strength to socialist labor activists who continued to agitate on May Day. Over the years the United States made efforts to discourage the May 1 commemorations, going so far as to substitute other holidays-the conservative and nationalistic Loyalty Day, for example-for the radical May Day. In fact, if one visits the Web site of the U.S. Department of Labor, and reads the “official” history of Labor Day, there is no mention of the international workers’ movement in the 19th century, nothing about the Second International, or the IWP, or socialism in general.
Although Labor Day was made an official national holiday in 1894, the eight-hour workday did not become a reality in the United States until March 15, 1917, when the Supreme Court finally ruled that the Eight-Hour Act was constitutionally legal, under the threat of a national railway strike.
In Canada the Labor Day holiday was adopted in 1894 by then Prime Minister John Thompson, although the concept had originated with marches held in Toronto and Ottawa as far back as 1872.
While in the United States and Canada Labor Day continues to be observed on the first Monday in September, the rest of the world observes it on May 1 or on other dates.
The first international May Day/Labor Day occurred in 1890, set for May 1 by the Second Socialist International in 1889 (a worldwide consortium of socialist and labor parties founded in 1880) to coincide with an AFL general strike in the United States demanding an eight-hour workday.
As the day approached the AFL limited its participation to a few American cities, but the international labor organization staged hugely successful festive demonstrations in cities throughout Europe as well as in Cuba, Peru, and Chile. As U.S. aversion to May Day grew, and as the United States promoted its Labor Day as a “classless” holiday, International Labor Day spread and entrenched itself worldwide as an occasion to celebrate the working class and promote its liberation.
Socialist countries are the most enthusiastic celebrants of May Day or Labor Day, staging massive rallies and parades of workers and peasants. In the Soviet Union, for example, May Day was a major holiday, featuring a huge parade in Moscow’s Red Square, and Russians continue to observe the occasion after the Soviet Union’s demise. But the holiday is much more widely celebrated, even by many nations (France and Germany, for example) considered to be moderate and well integrated into the global economy. Interestingly enough, Great Britain, where one of its two major political parties is called the Labor Party, does not observe the day.