Our Labor Day
By: John Shepler
What if the world revolved around us? Seriously. What if the stars of this life were you and me and billions of others just like us around the world? But that's just it, you say. We ARE the world... to coin a phrase. The sum total of what we do everyday is what's important. Great! Now why don't we hear about it more than one day a year? Labor Day to be exact.
Writer and pundit Norman Solomon goes so far as to suggest we get rid of the Labor Day holiday and replace it with something he calls Business Day. He'd round up all the politicians, starting with the President no doubt, and get them marching with the celebrated heroes of business in a great parade in New York City. There would be Bill Gates waving to the crowd as he sauntered down Fifth Avenue. Right beside him would be Warren Buffett and Donald Trump. It might be nice to include the media, say Louis Rukeyser of the Nightly Business Report. People would line the streets five and ten deep to see and cheer these cherished icons of American wealth and power. Their pictures would be in the paper and on every TV news report.
For this to really work, the next day you would hear nothing. That's right, absolutely nothing about the celebrities who were so lauded just the day before. Instead, the topic of conversation and the vast majority of all radio, TV, magazine and newspaper reporting would be on the everyday lives and concerns of the common man and woman. The big shots had their day. The other 364 are for us.
Pretty radical idea, right? Yet it does make you step back and consider whether we really are focused on what we say is important in our lives. Do we have a healthy balance and perspective, or has our focus gotten skewed to where the many worship the few and think that's just fine. If we could only be like Bill or Warren or The Donald. Then we'd have it MADE.
The roots of Labor Day can be traced back to a time and place when the balance of life was askew. It was 19th century America. The industrial revolution was in full bloom, and people were needed en masse to feed the hungry machine of progress. Millions responded, lured from the farms by the dream of a secure year-round income in an environment sheltered from the often harsh elements. They awoke from the dream to find themselves toiling twelve and fourteen hours a day in dingy and sometimes dangerous conditions in factories and underground mines.
From the late 1700s into the mid 1800s working people increasingly joined together in trade unions that would bargain collectively for the benefit of all members. In the spring of 1872, Peter McGuire, who had started his work life at age 11 to support his mother and six sisters while his father fought in the Civil War, joined 100,000 fellow workers to march the streets of New York in demand of better working conditions. It was an event that inspired him to devote himself to organizing others into effective trade unions. As the clout of these large organizations began to have positive results for the workers, Peter and some colleagues promoted the idea of a holiday in honor of the working people. It would fall halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving, in the first week of September, and be known as Labor Day.
The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, organized by machinist Mathew Maguire. Twenty thousand workers paraded up Broadway with banners that read "Labor Creates All Wealth," and "Eight Hours for Work; Eight hours for Rest; Eight Hours for Recreation!" This was more of a festival than a demonstration. It was a celebration with picnics and fireworks. It was also an idea that quickly captured the interest of the nation and spread from coast to coast.
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland found himself in an election year with an unhappy constituency. The previous year, he had deployed 12, 000 federal troops to stop a strike at the Pullman company in Chicago which was interrupting mail trains and making railroad executives nervous. Violence erupted and two men were killed by U. S. deputy marshals. Though work resumed at Pullman, there were protests against Cleveland's heavy-handed methods that did not go unnoticed in Congress. As a gesture of appeasement, both houses passed legislation making the first Monday in September a national holiday honoring labor. President Cleveland quickly signed the bill into law. Labor Day was established, but Cleveland still lost his bid for reelection.
Today, Labor Day is celebrated more as the last big fling of summer than a tribute to the work we do when we're not on vacation. That may be OK. Trying to celebrate our work lives only one day a year might turn this holiday into just more work. No, I think Norman Solomon is onto something. We need to value the everyday work we do, not just once a year, but every day.
Books of Interest:
First Labor Day Parade, Tuesday, September 5, 1882: Media Mirrors to Labor's Icons by Theodore F. Watts. This is the book by Ted Watts that I've referenced in the article.
Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do by Studs Terkel. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel presents "the real American experience"
The Livelong Day: Working in the World by: Roger Rosen (Editor),Patra McSharry (Editor)
All the Livelong Day; The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work by:Barbara Garson,Inc Doubleday And Company
The Work and Family Revolution; How Companies Can Keep Employees Happy and Business Profitable by Barbara Schwarz Vanderkolk,With Ardis Armstrong Young
Labor Day by Geoffrey Scott,Cherie R. Wyman (Illustrator). Describes the origin of the holiday Labor Day, and how it spread from New York City to other cities, finally becoming a national holiday. Written for younger readers.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
What If We Didn't Need Labor Day? - Norman Solomon's entertaining and thought provoking article.
The Origins of Labor Day - The PBS Online News Hour presents this piece about President Grover Cleveland's reluctant election-year compromise.
Labor Day (First Monday in September) - Peter McGuire rises from the streets of New York City to plan the first Labor Day holiday.
An Eclectic List of Events in U.S. Labor History - An interesting collection of labor events dating from 1806 to the present time. Written by Allen H. Lutins.
Copyright 1998 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: August 29, 1999 as part of A Positive Light