Frazer Blog

The fascinating history of Labor/Labour Day and May Day

by | Aug 31, 2016 | For Families

A handyman at his tool bench

You might be aware that this Monday is Labor Day in the United States, but did you know it’s also Labour Day in Canada?

The two countries share this holiday in September each year, and other parts of the world celebrate a similar day — International Workers’ Day, or May Day — in the spring. But why are these days celebrated?

American Labor Day

Labor Day in America began in 1887 in Oregon, which was the first state of the United States to make it an official public holiday. By 1894, it was recognized as a federal holiday, and now it falls on the first Monday of September each year.

But why did it start in the first place? It’s all thanks to trade and labor unions.

In the late 19th century, trade unionists proposed a day for the country to set aside and celebrate labor and hard work. Paramount in making this holiday into what it is today was the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, two organizations based in New York, as well as the American Federation of Labor.

Though Oregon was the first state to recognize the day as a public holiday, New York was the first state to put on a parade. Today, one of the hallmarks of the holiday is a parade, which happens in nearly every city across the U.S.

Canadian Labour Day

In Canada, the movement to celebrate the achievements of workers started in the late 19th century at around the same time as the U.S. In fact, some say that it was the annual labour festival in Toronto Canada that pushed the U.S. to adopt it as an official holiday.

In Canada, Labour Day has its origins based in unions as well, but more specifically the holiday celebrates the labour union movement and the eight-hour day movement, which advocated for eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest.

Other Parts of the World

Many other parts of the world celebrate a variant of Labor Day or Labour Day called the International Workers’ Day, which is held on May 1. The date May 1 was chosen to coincide with May Day, an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival.

More significantly, though, the date coincides with the Haymarket affair, which occurred on May 4, 1886. At Haymarket Square in Chicago, a rally began in support of workers who were striking for an eight-hour day, some of whom had been killed by police the day before.

It is believed that a protestor threw a stick of lit dynamite at police, and the ensuing explosion and following gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians.

All over the western world, the 19th century brought about a lot of change in the way workers were treated. Though the Haymarket affair was one of the most influential events in this international movement, it was the work of unions everywhere during this time period that made today’s labor standards what they are, which is why these celebrations take place.


The beginnings of these holidays are rooted in a movement to provide a fair working environment, and today they celebrate the success of that movement. Workers today have much better labor conditions than they did historically, though unions continuously work to improve them even further and advocate on laborers’ behalf.

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