AEI notes that most states had recognized Labor Day by 1894, when it became a federal holiday.
Labor Day was not the only holiday dedicated to America’s working men and women. May Day, recognized as the International Labor Day, had also developed a large following throughout the United States. In some cities, the size of May Day events rivaled those of Labor Day. Despite the popularity of May Day and the appeal of an international holiday, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) pushed to secure Labor Day as America’s primary celebration of its workers.This was due to the more radical tone that May Day had taken. Especially after the 1886 Haymarket Square Riot, where several police officers and union members were killed in Chicago, May Day had become a day to protest the arrests of anarchists, socialists, and unionists, as well as an opportunity to push for better working conditions. Samuel Gompers and the AFL saw that the presence of more radical elements of the labor movement would be detrimental to perception of the festival.
To solve this, the AFL worked to elevate Labor Day over May Day, and also made an effort to bring a more moderate attitude to the Labor Day festivities. The AFL, whose city labor councils sponsored many of the Labor Day celebrations, banned radical speakers, red flags, internationalist slogans, and anything else that could shed an unfavorable light upon Labor Day or organized labor. The subsequent push to make Labor Day a national holiday was an extension of these efforts to keep American labor free of the more radical, internationalist, and anti-capitalist elements whose ideas were (and still are) given voice in May Day rallies.
These efforts were successful, and Labor Day eventually became a federal holiday, signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894. Cleveland was by no means a pro-labor president. Just six days before he signed the bill to make Labor Day a national holiday, Cleveland had ordered the brutal suppression of the Pullman railcar worker’s strike by 12,000 U.S. Army troops, an act which demonized him in the eyes of organized labor. Fearing a primary challenge from the populist William Jennings Bryan, Cleveland recognized that a conciliatory effort was necessary. The political maneuver didn’t achieve its desired effect, however: Cleveland lost the Democratic Party’s 1896 presidential nomination to Bryan.