Our Labor Day The Real Meaning of the Labor Day Holiday
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.
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
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.
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