Labor Day

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 30 11:27:52 MDT 1999


September 3, 1982, Friday, Midwestern Edition

SECTION: Opinion and Commentary; Pg. 23

LENGTH: 740 words


BYLINE: By Thomas V. DiBacco; Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The
American University, Washington, D.C.

Labor Day, begun 100 years ago, is the nation's most unusual holiday in
terms of its origin and passage through time. On the one hand, it was
initiated by workers to break up the long interval between July 4 and
Thanksgiving when there were no holidays. On the other hand, it was
supported by union laborers as a day to show the strength and solidarity of
their ranks through parades and similar demonstrations. Because the two
objectives were divergent, the holiday would fall victim to some fine points.

To amass large numbers of union workers was a difficult, if not unrealistic
goal in America. Since colonial times labor was viewed as a temporary
status in a society with enormous opportunities. To pursue unionism was
admission that upward mobility was not possible.

In such a social environment a Union Day would not fly, but Labor Day was
too general, the monopoly of one group: the farmer labored, as did the
merchant, physician, and clerk. And there would be far more of the latter
then there would be blue-collar workers carrying union cards.

For these reasons the big parade that labor leaders predicted for the first
celebration in 1882 fell short of expectations. The initital national
observance in 1895 was also uneventful, except as a day of leisure: ''The
labor organizations in this city,'' read one newspaper account, ''with the
exception of the Knights of Labor who are garment makers, refrained from
parading yesterday, but observed the day by attending picnics, where they
had music, dancing, and speaking. . . .''

There were other developments that worked to the disadvantage of organized
labor's hopes. In the 1880s European unions moved toward adopting May 1 as
the international labor celebration. But American leaders were divided over
the matter, opting ultimately for the late summer break. And the attempt to
identify with the international day would be discredited, first by the riot
associated with the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in the wake of May
Day, 1886, later by the perception of European movements as too radical.

Then came the Pullman railroad strike and boycott in the spring of 1894
which Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, could not
fully support. This division in organized labor's camp provided Congress
with the opportunity to take full advantage of the situation. Legislation
establishing a national Labor Day was rushed through both houses - with
unanimous votes - and signed by President Cleveland during the Pullman
crisis in June, with the immediate beneficiaries the large number of
working people who preferred the obvious (a day off) to principle (unionism).

The gains that organized labor would make had little to do with the
activities of Labor Day. The AFL for a long time eschewed political action
and demonstration in preference to the bargaining table. Its own method of
organization along skilled lines worked against the goal of building an
army of laborers, some of whom could perceive that skill was becoming an
anachronism anyhow.

Finally, organized labor had no Armageddon or Gettysburg to rally the
troops, and the first Monday in September just didn't quite fit the bill,
although Gompers tried to ennoble the day. ''It is regarded,'' he said in
1898, ''as the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward,
when their rights and their wrongs might be discussed, placed upon a higher
plane of thought and feeling; that the workers of our day may not only lay
down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch
shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it; meet at their
parks, groves and grounds, and by appropriate speech, counsel with, and
pledge to, each other that the coming year shall witness greater effort
than the preceding in the grand struggle to make mankind free, true and

To be sure, later in the 20th century Labor Day would give unions some
limelight from politicians in search of votes. However, after 100 years
organized labor finds its ranks dwindling (from a peak of 25 percent of the
civilian labor force to less than 20 percent percent) and its special days
not so special. May Day in America after World War II became Loyalty Day -
in opposition to communist regimes flexing their military muscle - and more
recently is observed as Law Day.

As for Labor Day, it has come to mean for most Americans the ending of
summer and the beginning of fall.

Copyright© 1999, LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights

Louis Proyect


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