The making of Labor Day


To commemorate Labor Day, the American Enterprise exhibition team will be highlighting some of the museum’s rich collections in labor history over the next two weeks. Today’s post includes a brief history of the holiday by historian Paul Buhle and an original cartoon by labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki.

Labor Day, in its origins a nineteenth-century celebration of the dignity of work, swiftly evolved into today’s pleasant pause at the end of summer before the coming of new, chillier seasons and life indoors. Arguably a response (in the United States, Canada, and an assortment of other countries) to the widespread socialistic celebration of Mayday, which coincides with the age-old rituals of spring, Labor Day sets off the New World, or at least North America, from the traditions of the Old.

Conflicting accounts trace the first American Labor Day to the inspiration of a local New Haven, Connecticut machinist, Matthew Maguire, or to that of the influential leader of the Carpenters’ union, Peter McGuire. In both accounts, 1882 became the key moment when the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a movement of craft unions and local central labor federations, solidified their young and fragile institutions. Largely German and Irish in most places, these unions and federations had traditions of summer holidays, and the institutional support to make the day’s events successful combinations of speech-making, beer drinking, and family fun.

In the era of bitter and often violent conflict between labor and capital, Republican and Democratic parties competed, especially at the local level, for workingmen’s votes. These votes had been especially crucial for Democrats, who claimed the loyalty of the lower classes since at least the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a loyalty later reaffirmed by the connections of craft unions with local political decisions on urban construction projects of all kinds. However, waves of strikes from the early 1880s to the middle 1890s found Democratic officials, at the behest of manufacturers and merchants, calling out the police against strikers, thus threatening political loyalties. The Pullman Strike of 1894, where the army was used for the first time against striking workers (including the highly organized railroad engineers), seemed to push the problem to the breaking point.

The strike, led by future Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, was crushed, Debs himself imprisoned. Within days after the strike’s end, Democratic president Grover Cleveland rushed a bill recognizing Labor Day through Congress. Not a single elected official in Congress voted against this measure – a fitting symbol for the claim, accurate or not, that American society was unique for its social compact between rich, poor, and middle classes. President Cleveland himself chose the September date in order to set the American holiday off from European Mayday. An AFL resolution of 1909 declared the first Sunday to be the proper Labor Day, perhaps because Sunday holidays had long been popular for workers enjoying beer in picnic areas outside cities where Sunday sales were banned. Eventually, all states and the District of Columbia affirmed the holiday status for their residents. Although Labor Day was originally celebrated on Sunday, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The act moved several federal holidays, including Labor Day, to Mondays.

A Labor Day Cartoon by Mike Konopacki

Like other labor and political cartoonists, Mike Konopacki draws to express the ideas of the movement. He writes that he created this cartoon to make the point that: “Over the last 30 years, Labor Day has lost its original meaning. It no longer celebrates the labor movement that created it. This cartoon intends to remind the viewer of Labor Day’s union roots. It also reminds us of the purpose of the labor movement in a capitalist society; protection of our Constitutional and democratic rights. The constitution does not guarantee the Bill of Rights in the workplace. Only a labor contract protects freedom of speech and press, the right of peaceable assembly, the right to petition for the redress of grievances, equal justice under law and due process. Unfortunately, with a return to corporate domination of government, much like the nineteenth century era of the Robber Barons, our democracy and workplace rights are in serious jeopardy.” Cartoon by Mike Konopacki


About the Artist
Mike Konopacki is an internationally syndicated labor cartoonist and labor educator living in Madison, Wisconsin. He has been drawing editorial cartoons for the labor movement since 1979. In 1983 Mike and his colleague Gary Huck, cartoonist for the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE), created Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons. Since that time Mike and Gary have published six collections of labor cartoons: Bye! American, THEM, MAD in USA, Working Class Hero, Two Headed Space Alien Shrinks Labor Movement and American Dread. Mike has also drawn comic books and comics on the World Bank, welfare reform and union organizing. Mike is co-author and illustrator of Howard Zinn’s graphic history A People’s History of American Empire. In May of 2010 Mike earned his Master of Fine Arts in art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches an online labor studies class for the University of Illinois.

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    About the Author


    Paul BuhlePaul Buhle is a retired Senior Lecturer at Brown University and a longtime labor historian. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin and edits non-fiction, historical comic art books.View all posts by Paul Buhle