“Labor Day, when we briefly pause from demonizing unions to enjoy mattress sales in their honor.” -Anonymous
The odds are good you’ll never catch any sane American worker questioning the reason for a day off, but call us crazy, because we wanted to take a few short moments of your time to provide a little background on Labor Day, the holiday that marks the unofficial end of summer and commemorates all of us who work for a living.
This coming Monday, over 150 million American workers will take the day to relax, unwind and celebrate all the toil they’ve undergone in the previous year. This Labor Day will mark the 131st instance of the holiday, the 119th anniversary of its recognition on a national stage and the 58th year you could walk into a Waffle House for some scattered and smothered hash browns (the chain opened on Labor Day in 1955).
Also, people will drink booze. And barbecue. And generally enjoy the tail end of the summer on a day that was set aside to honor the spirit that made this country great.
So, come with us, won’t you, on a learning adventure, as we delve into the history of this beloved American holiday. We promise you won’t learn too much.
The stage is set
“The only liberty an inferior man really cherishes is the liberty to quit work, stretch out in the sun, and scratch himself.” -H.L. Mencken
Before we jump into Labor Day itself, it’s important to understand the situation facing the American worker in the years leading up to the foundation of the holiday. To put it mildly, being an American worker in the mid-to-late 1800s totally sucked rocks.
Remember a few weeks ago when your jerk boss handed you an assignment on Friday afternoon that was due on Monday? You were totally livid because it meant you’d have to work a few hours on your God-given weekend.
Count yourself lucky you only had to donate a bit of your time, because in the 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the average workweek for an American was 84 hours. That’s 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the board.
Employees didn’t get health insurance or bonuses. They didn’t even get safety gear. Heck, lots of American employees didn’t even get regular access to fresh air. Lots of people lived in factory-owned housing right down the street from the factory in which they worked. They paid extortion-level rents to the people who employed them. In general, life was … unpleasant.
Soon, though, these workers started to get the crazy idea that maybe they shouldn’t have to take their life in their hands every time they went to work. Protests started to spring up across the country. Violence was beginning to escalate. Something needed to be done.
A muddled origin
“If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.” -Lane Kirkland
Brace yourselves for this one, because the truth will shock you. Labor Day is in no way, shape or form an American holiday. We actually lifted the idea wholesale from our syrup-loving neighbors to the north. Even more upsetting to you tried and true Red-Staters, the holiday commemorates all the good work done by unions (yes, at one point there was actual good work done by unions).
The holiday itself was actually thought up by a union member. Beats me which one it was.
No, that’s not from lack of research (although there certainly is that), but because the founder of the holiday is in some dispute. Initially, credit was given to secretary for the Brotherhood of Carpenters, Peter J. McGuire. Recently, however, historical enthusiasts (who clearly have too much time on their hands) are giving more credence to the claim that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was the one who thought up the celebration. Labor Day was apparently so brilliant that no one wanted to give up the credit for stealing the holiday from Canada.
Whichever Mc or Ma Guire it was, what is for certain is that, in 1882, the Central Labor Union planned the first ever Labor picnic and demonstration in New York.
Let’s talk parades
“Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.” -Anatole France
Now, for me personally, the importance of parades on Labor Day is new information. That’s not terribly surprising considering I’m the kind of guy who spends the day inside, avoiding sunlight and watching action movies with the air-conditioning turned up—as the founders of the holiday intended.
But, for the first Labor Day, the organizers really wanted to blow it out, so they organized a parade that would exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Head’s up, esprit de corps means, the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group. I had to look it up.
In other words, though, the labor unions of New York were hoping to use the parade to drum up support and excitement for their cause. This was before their cause was racketeering and fraud. Back in the 1800s, they were more about the betterment of the working man’s existence.
After the initial parade, they had a big mixer for all the workers and their families. The party was so popular that it has continued unabated in some shape or form since that first year. Now, they just call it the West Indian American Day Parade & Carnival (because apparently brevity isn’t a valued commodity in Brooklyn).
After that first celebration, the holiday spread like wildfire. Oregon adopted it statewide in 1887. Colorado followed soon after. But the federal government was content to keep this growing holiday a regional celebration.
“Don’t want the workers thinking we give a crap about their well-being,” was the motto of several re-election campaigns around 1890.
“When people ask me, ‘Why can’t labor organize the way it did in the thirties?’ the answer is simple: everything we did then is now illegal.” -Thomas Geoghegan
Ok, we want to believe that Labor Day was not a “cover your butt” move on the part of the federal government, but … I’ll let you decide.
So, in Pullman, Chicago in 1894, there was this railroad company called Pullman, that made rail cars. Most of their workers lived in the aforementioned factory-owned housing deals. One day, the Pullman company decided it needed to reduce their workers’ wages. What the Pullman company decided not to do, however, was lower its people’s rent.
For some reason, this rubbed Pullman’s employees the wrong way, so those uppity serfs went on strike. They were joined by this guy, Eugene V. Debs, and his union, the American Railway Union. Debs brought his team in to organize the strike, to no avail. Pullman showed no signs of giving in.
You have to remember that at this time, the guys working for Pullman were really easily replaced. Everybody wanted a job and the labor involved was unskilled. And employees got overpriced shanties and treacherous working conditions, to boot. What wasn’t to love?
Things didn’t get really heated, though, until Debs spread the boycott to include any train that was pulling a Pullman car. At one point, over 250,000 workers in 27 states were hindering rail traffic. Pretty much all the rail lines west of Detroit were shut down. Violence was rampant across the western portion of the country. Thirty people were killed in riots, and over $80 million in damages was recorded. And this was $80 million in 1894 – today, that’s like the combined national income of all of South America.
This was the move that got the federal government involved. President Grover Cleveland wasn’t concerned about the workers so much as he was miffed that the transport of mail was being hindered. So, Cleveland – who, incidentally, was the only guy to hold the presidency non-consecutively – ordered in the army to put down the populace and quell the strike.
As you can imagine, in a battle of average Joes versus the freaking army, the army won. It wasn’t even a contest. For his trouble, Debs was charged with obstructing the delivery of mail and violating a direct order from the Supreme Court to dissolve the strike. He spent six months in jail.
The Pullman strike was a huge blow to Cleveland’s popularity, which is saying something considering he was so popular he’s the only man to ever win the popular vote in three national elections. In an effort to fight public distaste, Cleveland and Congress jumped on the growing Labor Day fad and signed it into law six days after the end of the Pullman strike.
Ok, it might have been a “cya” maneuver, but you have to admire a Congress that can get anything done in six days even if they are whitewashing a massacre.
Why we celebrate in September
“I wonder if the clothes in China say, ‘Made around the corner.'” -Anonymous
When it came time for the federal government to pick a date for the official celebration, they went with the first Monday in September. Initially, the call was for them to piggyback on the already widely celebrated International Worker’s Day which commemorated a nasty riot in 1886 (the Haymarket affair) in which 11 people died.
This idea was nixed pretty quickly, though. Since International Worker’s Day is celebrated worldwide, we, in accordance with American tradition, didn’t want anything to do with it. President Cleveland also didn’t want the official Labor Day to have any connection to a black mark on the government record. Apparently he was content for Labor Day to only commemorate only one bloody event, rather than two.
There was also the fact that Canada’s Labor Day takes place in September, and you know how all Americans just fall all over themselves to imitate Canucks.
Back to School
“Labor Day is a glorious holiday because your child will be going back to school the next day. It would have been called Independence Day, but that name was already taken.” -Bill Dodds
These days, the violence and strife that marked the origin of Labor Day has mostly been cast aside in favor of picnics. But, who’s mad at that? Everyone loves hamburgers, and nobody likes real-life violence. Violence is only fun when it’s simulated (and directed at bullies, not factory workers).
It’s not all roses, though. Most school kids face the three-day weekend with a sense of dread knowing that if they aren’t in school already, they will be shortly. On the bright side, Labor Day is hands down the favorite holiday of the year for stay-at-home moms.
Another interesting tidbit about the modern celebration: It’s one of the biggest shopping days of the year. That means that all the menial laborers who work retail actually end up working harder on the day meant to commemorate all their hard work. We think that’s fitting.
But hey, it’s football
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” -Bill Shankly
Most importantly of all, this Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial beginning of the football season (assuming you don’t count the four weeks of preseason games, the month of spring training before that and the speculation that begins like four seconds after the end of the Super Bowl).
Typically, the first game of the season is played the Thursday after Labor Day between the defending Super Bowl champs and some schlub they wipe the floor with. How else would you explain the fact that the defending champs have an 8-1 win/loss record over the history of the game.
Interesting factoid: The first NFL Kickoff Game was instituted in 2002 to help the Northeast recover financially from the devastating effects of 9/11.
Organizing a little recreation to help out the working man? If that’s not in the spirit of the holiday, I don’t know what is.