A lot of Americans don’t realize it, but Labor day does have a significance other than getting a day off to celebrate the end of summer. I talked about some of the history behind Labor Day last year in my Labor Day, Eh? post. The day has been celebrated since September 5th, 1882, when the first parade took place in Union Square. At the time I wrote the post, I didn’t realize that the organizers had chosen the date because it’s halfway between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. I’m sure there is quite a lot I don’t know about Labor Day, but I do know that it’s a celebration of the contribution organized labor has made to our society.
Interestingly enough, Europe celebrates the contribution of organized labor on May Day. May 1st was chosen as a day to recognize labor because it was the start of the new contract each year. I’m sure that with anarchists, Marxists, and other groups claiming May Day as their own, organized labor in this country wanted some other day to recognize the contributions of the worker. Even so, May 1st is still celebrated in Europe and other locations as the International Worker’s Day. Labor Day serves the same purpose in this country.
This year, I took another look at Labor Day through the eyes of Samuel Gompers, a 19th century labor organizer (he was the first president of the American Federation of Labor, the AFL). He published an article on September 4th, 1910 in the New York Times about the significance of Labor day that makes something about this particular holiday clear, “It differs essentially from some of the ex holidays of the year in that it glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man.” This particular holiday isn’t the result of any religion or other inclination of some subset of mankind—it truly is a holiday for everyone. In reading about Samuel Gompers and seeing his vision through the articles he wrote, I see a different version of labor than it exists today.
During the 19th century, people worked long hours for incredibly low pay. Many people made so little they couldn’t afford to buy decent food, lived in hovels, and barely had clothes on their backs. Samuel Gompers, and many like him, worked hard to obtain worker rights to decent pay and shorter working hours. He truly was a visionary and I’m glad that he was instrumental in making work conditions so much better for the rest of us. I just wish that some of his other goals and ideals had come true.
Monday is truly a time of reflection. It’s a time when you should consider the plight of the working person in today’s world. However, it’s also a time of fun. You may very well decide to march in a parade, celebrate with a picnic, or simply fire up the barbecue as I plan to do. The important point is to remember why the holiday exists and to tell others about it. When a holiday becomes meaningless, the reasons for celebrating it become lost in the shuffle and we all lose something. Labor Day is too important a holiday for that.
With this in mind, I’ll be taking a holiday on Monday. Rest assured that you’ll see my usual blog post on Tuesday. In the meantime, read up on Labor Day and take a little time to think about the contributions that organized labor has made.