Labor Day: What is America Celebrating?
As a kid, Labor Day meant the end of summer and the beginning of school. Even though the kids start mid-August now, the first Monday in September still feels like the Last Hurrah before we go full speed into school and all their fall activity schedules. Today’s Labor Day doesn’t even dictate fashion choices as it once did. Fashion gurus and etiquette experts (Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition, published in 2004) now say it’s even acceptable to wear white after Labor Day, but I still don’t. Call me old-fashioned (I prefer traditional) but I like to think some things just belong to summer—like homegrown tomatoes, flip flops and Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy beer.
So why do many of us have the day off for Labor Day? I’ve often wondered what the full history was to this holiday and found out there’s a lot more to it than I realized. This is my attempt to put together a brief summary of what Labor Day is about without boring the average reader silly. The date-specific information I gathered was found on the US Department of Labor’s website (www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm) as well as some information from good old Wikipedia. If you want even more in-depth information, I also found some good information on About at http://usgovinfo.about.com/bllabor.htm.
To start, we can thank the early Labor organizers for wanting to rally the American working class back in the late 1800s. The first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882, with a parade that apparently looked more like a protest. As far as who masterminded the idea is disputed. Some credit Peter J. McGuire, who was the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), while others attribute it to Matthew Maguire, who was part of the Central Labor Union (CLU). I found it ironic that they had similar names—no wonder there was confusion! Some people claim that Matthew Maguire got slighted for the honor because he ran for office for the wrong political party and made people mad.
The holiday started out being recognized at the municipal level, but the first state to sign Labor Day into law was Oregon in 1887. Later that year, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York also signed the holiday into law. It wasn’t until 1894 that President Cleveland and Congress signed it into law in an apparent move to do some damage control to his re-election campaign after the Pullman Strike.
The Pullman Strike was basically a boycott that railroad workers had against running trains pulling Pullman cars in response to the Pullman Palace Car Company cutting worker wages when the company’s bottom line was losing money. George Pullman, the company’s owner, didn’t lower the rents on company housing the workers lived in, so many of the Pullman factory workers joined the American Railway Union. As more workers and strike sympathizers got involved, rail transportation was interrupted, prompting intervention by the federal government, and things got ugly. Federal troops were called in, and you can guess how that ended—in a violent mess.
Six days after the Pullman Strike ended, Cleveland signed the observance of Labor Day into federal law in 1894 to honor the working man. By the way, this attempt to smooth things over with the various Labor parties didn’t work—he didn’t get the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1896.
Another interesting thing I learned about when researching this holiday was that September was chosen to celebrate Labor Day in an effort to not commemorate the Haymarket Massacre that happened in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The Haymarket Massacre was another situation where what started as a peaceful protest ended in violence and death when someone threw a bomb. President Cleveland and Congress did not want the federal holiday to be associated with that event. As a national holiday that is celebrating the American worker, flags fly proudly at full staff for Labor Day. (So please don’t call your local municipality the day after Labor Day and scold them for not having it at half-staff. I work for the City of O’Fallon, and was told we get phone calls complaining about this every year.)
Even though today’s notion of Labor Day doesn’t have the Labor Movement as a primary focus anymore, I like to think the people who originally wanted to celebrate the achievements of workers in America would be happy that we’re doing exactly that. Having a day off to spend with friends and family seems like a fitting reward for the everyday working person. Happy celebrating!