Labor Day Workers

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Labor Day 2023: We need it more than ever

Labor Day is tied to decades of union struggles.


Jack Alban


Posted on Aug 23, 2023

One of the most beloved, if not the most beloved, United States presidents of all time, John F. Kennedy, once famously said in his Jan. 20 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

While the idea of a man in a suit, telling the denizens of folks who labor day in, day out, to keep a country’s economy afloat, to ensure its roads are built, that commerce happens on a daily basis, that scientific innovations and new breakthroughs are occurring each and every day, and that its military is fortified enough to thwart any potential attacks from rival nations looking to expand their respective reach and resource hoarding capacity, that they need to focus on what they can give rather than what they can get, might seem gauche to some, but it certainly struck a chord with U.S. citizens and has for decades.

And it could be that these words from JFK that touch upon a universal truth and it’s that the strength of a group, however big or small, is made up of the collective contributions and sacrifices they’re willing to make, day in, day out.

Labor Day is a celebration of this truth.

When is Labor Day, 2023?

The holiday always falls on the first Monday of September every year, which means you’ll get to light some fireworks, grill it up with loved ones, and relax on Sept. 4, 2023. Of course, you’ve also got the Saturday and Sunday beforehand to prepare for the festivities and pregame beforehand, or use that Monday to recoup from the hearty-partying of the weekend.

The history of Labor Day

The first “official” Labor Day took place in Oregon in 1887, and was recognized as a state-wide holiday that took place on the first Monday of June. Other states in the country must’ve thought it was a great idea because New York, New Jersey, Colorado, and Massachussetts all followed suit and had their own Labor Day celebrations on the first Monday of September. Other U.S. states followed suit until June 28, 1894, when it became a federally mandated holiday.

A desire to laud the contributions of employees across the country served as the impetus for Labor Day celebrations; labor unions are predominantly attributed for the holiday’s push, and some key figures names’ are most closely associated with establishing the celebration. Like Peter J. McGuire, who was a general secretary for the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, who also founded the American Federation of Labor.

Machinist Matthew Maguire from Paterson, New Jersey is also attributed as being one of the first campaigners for a federally recognized holiday acknowledging the work of laborers across the country as well. It’s said that while he worked as a secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882, he lobbied hard for Labor Day to become a country-wide recognized celebration. President Grover Cleveland is the commander-in-chief who effectively signed Labor Day into official United States law, and he penned in an op-ed in the Paterson Morning Call newspaper that it was Maguire who should be credited for making Labor Day a reality, writing: “the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.” Maybe Cleveland was just showing love to a fellow Jersey boy, as he was originally from Caldwell himself.

Or it might have to do with the fact that the “first labor day” celebration was actually thrown by the Central Labor Union on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, although it wasn’t a holiday officially recognized by the state—that distinction would go to Oregon some five years later.

On that fateful 1882 Monday in NYC, some 10,000 workers took an unpaid day off to parade through the streets of the city, dancing, lighting off fireworks, having picnics, and living it up.

A railroad strike signed Labor Day into Federal law

The fight for labor rights in the United States has a bloody history, and getting a nationally mandated holiday to honor the contributions of the country’s workers didn’t come without controversy. Many attribute the Pullman Strike which saw throngs of railway employees refuse to work due to having their “already low wages” cut, with no change to the cost of company housing or goods, as the impetus behind Grover Cleveland’s decision to sign Labor Day into law as a “conciliatory gesture” to the United States labor movement.

The strike, which began on May 11 of 1894 wasn’t absolved by the introduction of Labor Day, and as heated negotiations between rail companies and workers fomented, so did tempers on both sides. More and more laborers abandoned their jobs and mass demonstrations and protests erupted across the country, often turning violent. Rioters destroyed rail cars after threats from rail companies to hire non-union employees were made, and Pullman made good on their promise.

Cleveland sent federal troops to protect employees operating the trains against the attacks of strikers, who, at the time, were vilified for their retaliatory acts. Members of the American Railway Union were arrested and prosecuted for the roles they played in the riots, and the Pullman Palace Car Company agreed to rehire any workers that went on strike if they had agreed to never join another union again. In short, big business won and the strikers lost.

Labor Day existed before the Department of Labor

In this light, Labor Day can be viewed as a masterclass in Feudal System vs Plebeian PR: The holiday allowed denizens a long weekend to vacation, but less than a month later when employees demanded higher wages and became violent when their jobs were being farmed out to others who were willing to work them, their efforts were ultimately stymied.

However, one could argue that these incremental struggles ultimately led to the improvement of labor conditions in America, as 19 years later, the Department of Labor was founded on March 4, 1913 by President William Howard Taft as he was leaving office.

Granted, there were departments in the U.S. government that dealt with issues prior to the USDOL, like the Federal Bureau of Labor, and President Theodore Roosevelt pushed for a federal governing body to oversee labor matters as well during his 1901-1909 terms.

Why is Labor Day at the end of summer?

Many Americans plan their vacations around the summer time, and Labor Day can be seen as an official “end” to the summer where folks and families wrap up their hot weather festivities, travel, and relaxation plans with a proverbial “bang” in the form of a holiday celebration honoring laborers. It could also be perceived as a cultural marker as a marking that “play time is over,” with the holiday as a form of federal pep talk where folks can simultaneously pat themselves on the back and get ready to prepare for the pre-Christmas rush to get in as much industriousness as they can before the winter months, and New Year, kick in.

Labor Day vs. International Workers Day

“May Day” a.k.a. International Workers Day is celebrated on May 1. It has medieval origins as a means of ushering in the summer months with festivities. The U.S. doesn’t actively participate in International Workers Day, but “most of Africa, Europe” and other parts of the “Americas” do celebrate this holiday: 160 countries to be exact. May Day’s origins occurred around the same time as Labor Day with similar origins: Socialist groups and trade unions celebrated the first May Day in 1889 to commemorate the Chicago Haymarket Affair in 1886, which started off as a peaceful labor demonstration but then devolved into violence and then an explosion which killed 7 cops, at least 4 civilians, and left dozens of folks injured.

Also like Labor Day, employees receive May Day off, and various labor associations and trade unions will throw massive parades, block parties, and rallies for folks to join in on. Some workers use the day to advocate for improved treatment of employees and a push for labor laws that ensure better conditions for themselves and fellow laborers.

How has Labor Day changed in America?

The transmogrification of how Americans celebrate labor day over the years may partially be attributed to the decline of labor union participation. The Clarion-Ledger reported that much like International Workers Day, Labor Day in the U.S. featured a litany of union-led celebrations and gatherings employees and their families could enjoy, which could serve as a reminder for the rights they fought for as workers and reinvigorated them to do more and thus, fight for and get more, for themselves and their communities at large.

Like many holidays, now Labor Day is usually associated with massive sales and partying on a beach somewhere, or if you matched with someone on one of many dating apps who happens to have a boat, a fine time making social media clips while sipping hard seltzers to impress the internet with your good fortune.

There are still a number of Labor Day celebrations held by unions, however

Detroit, New York City, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia are some cities that hold Labor Day parades sponsored by the ALF-CIO and other local unions. Many union offices will hold smaller gatherings in their respective offices on labor day as well, like the Teamsters; United Auto Workers (who may go on strike soon); the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the International Longshoremen’s Association; the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the American Postal Worker’s Union; and United Steelworkers, among others.

What’s the significance of Labor Day today?

Labor Day was started as a celebration of the recognition of individual Americans’ contributions to the betterment of the country. It was a day to consider their jobs, while not glamorized, or fairly compensated and in many instances, regulated to consider their well-being, as integral. It was a day to remind folks that the pursuit of happiness was possible in America, but this pursuit must be guarded and fought to be maintained.

It could be argued that today, the “spirit” of Labor Day is needed more than ever: The U.S. has hit its worst rates of inflation in the past 40 years, and it is now harder to folks to purchase a home and own their own property than it was in the Great Depression, hurdling citizens toward a new era of indentured servitude, especially with individual debt at an all-time high. This seems to have destroyed a desire in folks to take pride in work, with numerous think-pieces justifying peoples’ lack of passion for their jobs, and throngs of laborers admitting to “quiet quitting” at their respective jobs.

But it seems like it’ll take more than just a day of partying off of work that’ll get people to ask themselves what they could do for their country.

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*First Published: Aug 23, 2023, 8:24 am CDT