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.
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.