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Oct 3, 2006 2:57 pm

Who Started Labor Day?


...The founders of Labor Day were one or another nineteenth-century labor organizer named McGuire. Peter had been general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners; Matthew was secretary for the Paterson, New Jersey, local of the International Association of Machinists. From the early 1880s the holiday took hold in the industrialized states, and then in 1894, the same year he sent federal troops to break the Pullman Strike, President Cleveland signed legislation declaring the first Monday in September an official holiday in the District of Columbia and the Territories.

So the workers for whom the holiday was founded were principally industrial workers—battered and literally beaten by American industry. The purpose of the holiday was not simply to give workers a much-needed break from the endless twelve-hour tedium of factory work. It was, in the view of its organizers, a way for workers to reveal their political potency. Hidden away in the crevices of industry or the working-class ghettos of American cities, the laboring hordes were easily ignored by politicians. It took good Samaritans with the missionary zeal of Jane Addams to find them and do the hard work of transforming them into citizens. Perhaps a day dedicated to laboring people, a day of parades and picnics and other happy occasions, would be an efficient way for labor to rear its head.

Organizers faced an uphill battle. For the holiday to have its desired effect, it had to be broadly observed. A special day in New York City would have little effect on the consciousness of national political parties. But a national holiday would need the support not only of state and national politicians but also of employers. The early laws and ordinances endorsing Labor Day carried no legally binding requirement of observance in the private sector. If your boss wanted to keep you working, he was free to do so (and still is, assuming he doesn’t work for the government). Organizers also faced the extraordinarily difficult problem of persuading the xenophobic American middle class that the face of labor was neither the corrupt Irish drunk nor the bomb-throwing central European anarchist.

That is why, in its heyday, the celebrations of Labor Day were as polite and decorous as a Victorian tea party. Parade and picnic banners were more likely to feature patriotic proclamations than the radical slogans of the Industrial Workers of the World.

By the early twentieth century, labor organizers were discovering that few workers were inclined to spend their holidays in carefully circumscribed public demonstrations—not because they craved more radical fare but because they too sought a piece of the great American leisure pie. Hence, in some cities, labor picnics became spectacular affairs, sometimes held at beaches or amusement parks and featuring baseball games, boxing matches, bicycle races, strength and beauty contests, as well assorted contests testing the skills of tradespeople. The industrial workforce—or at least the industrial workforce the holiday put on display—was every bit as leisure loving as the rest of America.

The delicate act that Labor Day used to be—a political act but also a patriotic and American act—explains why it is that we pay tribute to workers in September and the rest of the world does so on May 1. Our workers are Americans first, workers and laborers second. As if that point had not been amply demonstrated by, say, workers’ performance in World War II, we took a firm stand against worker internationalism when President Eisenhower declared May 1 National Loyalty Day. As President Bush put it not long ago in his own strange twist on what might better be called "Red Scare Day," the first of May is a day to "reaffirm our allegiance to our country and resolve to uphold the vision of our Forefathers."...

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