Labor Day

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  1. Labor Day – first Monday in September

            For many, Labor Day is simply an extra break, a day when you don’t have to go to work and can catch up on all the tasks you have been putting off at home. But though the people who set it at the beginning of September may not have been thinking about deeper meanings, I can’t help feeling that they sensed the appropriateness of a holiday with a focus on work at this time of the year.

In an agricultural community, the significance of this moment is obvious. Wheat is still the staff of life, and the crop planted in the spring is now being harvested. People can congratulate themselves on work well done and the assurance that there will be food for the coming year. However with the Industrial Revolution this connection to the rhythm of the seasons was lost. Nature might give men a respite after the harvest. Capitalism did not. The people who built American industry were at the mercy of unchecked corporate greed. Workers struggled to survive unsafe and unhealthy conditions and long hours.

But the idea that everyone has a right to a decent life is a basic part of the American tradition. As industry grew, so did the idea that the workers who made it possible deserved a share in the benefits, starting with the 8-hour work day. A more cynical interpretation suggests that some employers realized that people would be able to spend more money if they had more free time.

By the late nineteenth century, workers were organizing strikes to protest inhumane conditions. Sometimes rallies turned to riots, but on September 5th, 1882, ten thousand New York workers walked off the job and marched to Union Square. Many credit Peter J. McGuire, founder of the New York City Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, with proposing an event at this time of year that would display the strength and spirit of trade and labor organizations. As quoted on the website of the Southwest Carpenters’ Union, he proclaimed

“No festival of martial glory or warrior’s renown is this; no pageant pomp of war like conquest, no glory of fratricidal strife attend this day. It is dedicated to peace, civilization and the triumphs of industry. It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age – a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.”


The idea caught on. Twelve years later, after a strike by the American Railroad Union had brought transportation to a stand-still, President Grover Cleveland made the first Monday in September a legal holiday. An alternate tradition makes May 1st the day for protests and demonstrations. I would rather save Beltane for more peaceful celebrations, and hope that by celebrating Labor Day as an expression of “Worker’ Pride”, we can affirm a more cooperative relationship between Labor and Capital.

            Some of the American heroes who we can honor on this day are Eugene V. Debs, Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randollph, Cesar Chavez. For information on their contributions, check out the transcript of a program  on the VOA Special English site– Some of them are also featured in the list of heroes in Chapter 7 (?).


A “Working” for Labor Day

  • Decorate

Part of the problem with celebrating Labor Day is its lack of specific heroes and imagery. The closest we come is the red flag, or the hammer and sickle, but those are associated with May Day. Instead, perhaps we should focus on the holiday’s seasonal significance—getting in the harvest. At Thanksgiving we will be celebrating the results. Labor Day marks the peak of a season in which each week, depending on region and weather, different crops are coming in. The day may not have its own symbols, but the stores are already featuring corn stalks and autumn leaves and other symbols of the season.

  • Contemplate

Although the United States still produces a great deal of food, it is no longer primarily an agricultural country. Mechanized farming has drastically reduced the number of people who make their living on farms, and of the major labor movements of the past fifty years, only the United Farm Workers strike led by César Chavez, involved agriculture. Today, instead of food, most of us harvest the products and projects that enable us to buy it. But whether people labor on the farm or in a factory—or in an office or home—the principle is the same. For everybody, the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means a healthy and just work environment, and a wage that keeps up with the cost of living.

Take a few moments to think about your own labors. This year where have you put your energy? What have you accomplished, and how has it rewarded you? What projects are still growing? Is your work giving you what you need?


  • Celebrate

If your community has a Labor Day parade, turn out to support it. If you are in a union, march. If your union isn’t marching, why not? If not—fire up the barbecue!

Food is a basic part of any celebration, and tastes and flavors have the power to evoke experience. Fourth of July food is basic American summer fare with regional variations—the first sweet corn still on the cob, potato salad, hot dogs and hamburgers or steaks on the grill, watermelon and snow cones and ice cream, lemonade and of course beer.


  • Activate

Remember that nothing grows in isolation. The factors that make one farm flourish will affect all the others as well. An economy is the same. Though for a time some may succeed at the expense of others, in the long run a society can be healthy only when the system benefits everyone. Is everyone in your work-place treated fairly? What about the people who teach your children and collect your trash? Think about it., and if this sounds too idealistic, remember that products and produce are both worthless without people who have the money to buy. Viewed from this perspective, Labor Day, far from being a forgotten holiday, allows us to focus on some of our most fundamental national needs.

Your rights and prosperity can only be preserved by defending those of everyone else. Pay attention and take action!