Labor Day: What's it all about?

September 04, 2006 by barbara

by barbara

David and I have been holding down the fort. We're the only people left behind in the Twin Cities area. Everyone else has gone "up north" or "over to Wisconsin" for the Labor Day weekend.

They're gathering for family picnics and the final fun-in-the-sun op before the kiddos go back to school tomorrow. Since there are so many people in our families who have each other in their crosshairs, that is not an option.

Which is why I'm plunked in front of the computer yet again. I got to wondering about this Labor Day thing, and realized that, as is the case with so much in life, I don't know much about it. Or didn't until I started poking around for information this morning.

I'm probably the least qualified person for telling this story. I grew up in a staunch Republican household. Staunch and racist and classist. It is fair to say that my father took a very dim view of anything Democrat in general and unions in particular. And so I was raised believing that union is a four-letter word. I became a crackerjack speller in spite of that, but I digress.

According to the Department of Labor, no one is absolutely clear whose idea it was to create a Labor Day holiday. But the first one was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. I had no idea this holiday's roots extended back that far.

The DOL says that "in 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a "workingmen's holiday" on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country."

The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but Oregon was the first state to pass it into law in 1887. That same year, four more states '" Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York '" created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment.

Then, 1893 ushered in a nationwide economic depression. The town of Pullman, Illinois became the epicenter of labor unrest. Pullman was a company town by every definition. Everything there'"jobs, housing, the works'"belonged to George Pullman of Pullman railroad cars. The depression meant lost jobs everywhere, but nowhere were the losses and pay cuts more dramatic than in Pullman. In spite of lost wages, expenses, such as rent, in the company town remained constant.

The workers went on strike, demanding higher pay and lower rents. The strike became a national issue as there were nationwide boycotts against railroads with Pullman cars. Some of the striking turned violent. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime (interrupted mail delivery, among other things) and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. They prevailed.

Six days after the strike was broken, legislation creating Labor Day was rushed through both houses of Congress and placed on President Cleveland's desk. It was an election year (1894), and so Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation (NOTE: in 2006, we would call this sucking up to one's detractors). Thus Labor Day was born. Cleveland was not reelected. Apparently citizens could detect political expediency even then.

So Labor Day is about more than farewell to summer. A PBS piece tells us that Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed...that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

The original Labor Day proposal called for a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day.

Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

My father grew up on a North Dakota farm and when he was 18, he fled from what must have felt to him like indentured servitude to my grandfather. He went to college. Got a degree. Very Big Deal in the family. Got an advanced degree. Even Bigger Deal. And he disdained dirty hands ever after. Kind of funny, because he became a dentist in an era when latex gloves were not yet de rigueur. Ewwww.

I grew up being taught that Japs and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and unions were the scourge of mankind. That Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver were a joke. My diminutive father grew very large when he was pontificating about his certainties.

My father died many years ago. I am certain he would spin faster than Karl Rove if he knew I now have lunch sometimes with a group that includes "labor guys." Their creased and weathered faces are the only visible sign of their lifelong struggles as union leaders. They have stories and stories to tell. And probably many more that they choose not to share over lunch.

Their passion for the rightness of the union cause is immense. I'm trying to learn from them. I'm still working to cast off core beliefs drilled into my being by parents spouting rigid dogma. (Any recovering Catholics out there identify with this?) I'm making progress. Maybe that's why we're called progressives.

So. That's Labor Day history with an overlay of personal pathology. What's the point here? Just filling in some blanks, I guess. And sharing what I learned with you. And by the way? Tomorrow, I'm gonna wear white shoes. Just so you know.

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Glinda (not verified) | September 5, 2006 - 12:46pm

This is interesting. I didn't know LDay is that old. Thought maybe sometime in the 1930s or so. Thanks.