Today, September 1, is Labor Day (“LD”). As we all know, the holiday has always been celebrated on the first Monday of September. It is celebrated in various forms and at various dates in approximately 80 countries.
To most Americans LD merely symbolizes the unofficial end of summer and the impending beginning of the school year. They enjoy the day off from work. They spend the day with family and/or friends. They enjoy picnics, parades, vacations, shopping and barbecues. They lament, but grudgingly accept, holiday traffic and long lines at airports. Also, it is the reason why summer always seems to be so short. In our minds, we transfer approximately three weeks of the season to Autumn. But what is the meaning and purpose of LD? Why do we celebrate it? How did it come about? Good questions. Read on for the answers.
As the name implies, the purpose of LD is to celebrate the accomplishments of the American Labor movement. Whatever one’s political views and affiliations, I think it is important and appropriate to understand Labor’s contributions to the growth and development of the US. For one thing, cheap labor was an integral component of the Industrial Revolution. When all is said and one, someone had to build all the roads, railroads, and cars, and operate all the factories and steel mills. In addition, the labor movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s was largely responsible for the relatively high wages and extensive benefits that are enjoyed by today’s US labor force.
The history of LD began in the 1870s in Canada. Labor Unions were illegal in Canada, and 26 members of the Toronto Typographical Union had been imprisoned for striking for a nine-hour work day. That action led to demonstrations and rallies and raising the profile of labor unrest in both Canada and the US. Two of the most outspoken leaders were Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and an official of the AF of L, and Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Union in NY. Historical accounts differ, but one or both of these men are credited with being the first to propose a holiday to celebrate labor. In any event, the CLU planned and organized the first LD celebration in NYC on September 5, 1885. Approximately, 20,000 workers and their families participated. The concept spread. In 1887 Oregon became the first state to sanction the holiday.
The Pullman Labor Strike in 1893 provided the final impetus for a national labor holiday. The Pullman Company had been founded and was run by George Pullman. Pullman, IL, where the company operated was a classic company town. All the workers lived there and paid rent to the company, which was automatically deducted from their paychecks. Workers’ housing was segregated according to their jobs; everyone shopped at the Company Store. Many viewed such an arrangement as a form of slavery, because workers were, in actuality, trapped due to their omnipresent debt to the Company. (Think of the song “Sixteen Tons.”) In 1893 the country was in the midst of a recession, and the company laid off hundreds of workers and reduced the wages of the others. Of course, living expenses remained constant. These actions led to a strike. President Cleveland declared the strike to be illegal and broke it with Federal troops. Some striking workers were killed in the ensuing violence. This incensed many Americans and 1894 was an election year. So, Congress expeditiously passed a bill establishing LD as a national holiday, and the President promptly signed it into law. This entire process took only six days, so you can imagine the extent of the public outcry. Incidentally, this action failed to save President Cleveland’s political career; he was defeated anyway.
Eventually, the government settled on the first Monday in September as the official date. Many countries celebrate it on May 1 in conjunction with International Workers’ Day, but the Federal government did not want the association with that date for obvious reasons.
One of the supreme ironies of LD is that because it is such a big shopping day, many workers, especially retailers, are required to work. LD is considered to be one of the biggest retail sales days of the year. Some people use the day as a benchmark to change over their summer clothes to fall clothes. Fashion-minded people claim it the latest day when one should wear white clothes (although “winter white,” whatever that is, is still permissible.)
So now, as you celebrate today in whatever fashion you choose, at least you will have some appreciation of the meaning of LD beyond a day off from work, the unofficial last day of summer and the beginning of the school year. Have fun and enjoy.