Happy Leisure Day !

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These days, Labor Day is just a bookmark.  It signals the end of summer, the start of school, the advent  of the political hustlings and the last chance to buy a car before the new model  year arrives in showrooms. Labor Day is  associated with picnics, sporting events and shopping. It could more accurately  be called Leisure Day, and as such is a distinctly American holiday.

Labor Day is a Canadian import, first  celebrated in Toronto in 1872. The most noted foundational event for the  American holiday took place 10 years later when the General  Assembly of the Order of the Knights of Labor (KoL)  convened in New  York City. At that  time, some labor organizations were secretive and not given to public displays,  but Matthew McGuire, the secretary of the  New York Central Labor  Union, invited those attending to review a parade of laborers at Union  Square. During the festive review, KoL board member Robert  Price turned to Gen.  Worthy Foreman Richard Griffiths and said, “This is Labor  Day in earnest, Uncle Dick.” The name stuck.

On June 28, 1894, Congress passed a law  recognizing Labor Day, though in those days  when Washington’s power was refreshingly limited, a federal holiday applied only  to the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The move was politically  motivated; President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Congress were trying to  repair relations with labor after putting down the Pullman strike that had paralyzed U.S. railroads in  the West. But then as now, people were more interested in actually having jobs  than in symbolic political gestures.

The country was still recovering from the  Panic of 1893, and the Janesville, Wis., Daily Gazette editorialized that,

“The  workingmen would prefer that Congress should  give them a chance to labor, than that it should make Labor  Day a national holiday. Holidays are  not in favor just now; there are too many of them, particularly for the  unemployed.”

Democrats paid a heavy price for the  economic bad times. In the election the following November, Republicans gained 130 seats, the largest midterm shellacking in U.S. history.

Labor Day was not intended to be a  battleground, but rather a day for reflection and reconciliation. Knights of Labor leader Terence  Vincent Powderly wrote in 1893,

“The real significance of the American Labor Day lies in the fact that on that day no  question of local importance, no strike, no controversy or dispute shall  interfere with the observance of the day  . While parades, picnics, festivals  and games were permissible, the principle feature of the exercises was to  consist of lectures and discourses upon topics relating to the welfare of the  industrial masses. Labor Day should  resemble an ‘open court,’ in which both sides — all sides — to the great  question of production should be discussed.”

This image of Labor  Day as an intellectual conclave  was undermined by the honest impulse of most workers to just enjoy the day off.  The “parades, picnics, festivals and games” that Mr.  Powderly deemed “permissible” quickly became the central feature of the day.  The tradition of the Labor Day Sale at stores  across the land began even before the national holiday was declared.

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By 1914, the American Federation of Labor was  deeply disturbed by this tendency to depoliticize what it saw as a holiday to  aggrandize labor unions and try to brainwash the masses with socialist  propaganda. A union publication asked :

“Shall Labor Day lose its  distinctive character and become a mere holiday for general meaningless purposes  and for the exploitation for private profit? Some  labor organizations  have abandoned regular Labor Day demonstrations, parades, meetings,  addresses, in the belief that such expenditure of time, effort and money is  wasteful. This is a most serious mistake  . Observance of the day is a means of  educating public thought and agents for molding public opinion in regard to the  principles and purposes of the labor movement.”

“Labor Day typifies a movement for life  and humanity,” the AFL union declared. “Do not pervert it.”

The populist shtick  didn’t stick, however. Even in the heyday of the working-class movement,  American workers found more value and significance in going to baseball  games and having  picnics with their neighbors than being lectured to by union bosses or listening  to tedious political speeches. What the AFL stuffily called “general meaningless  purposes” were to most workers the very reason why they labored so hard. Taking  a late summer break to enjoy the fruits of productive activity is an affirmation  — not a perversion — of life and humanity. If anything, spending the day in  cheerful celebration is a better expression of the free American spirit than  dwelling moodily on the supposed merits of class consciousness.

Let the picnics, ballgames and shopping commence. Enjoy this unofficial final  day of summer free of the  rough and tumble of politics. The critical issues facing the American polity  will still be there on Tuesday.

From The WT


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6 Responses to Happy Leisure Day !

  1. Kathy says:

    Good stuff, Terry – a great refresher!

  2. Clyde says:

    Good essay, Terry. Glad to see you back, BTW.

  3. Missed your insights, Terry,,,
    Good history for the day~!

  4. Mrs AL says:

    Great to have you back, Terry. A teachable post to say the least. Have a fine one.

  5. CW says:

    Very interesting history, Terry! Thanks and welcom back!

  6. Hardnox says:

    The last line is sage advice.