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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why do we Celebrate Labor Day?

"Labor Day differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year in any country...All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."
These words, spoken by Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of labor, help to sum up why Labor Day is a unique celebration in the American canon of federal holidays. And though in our current era Labor Day tends to signify the unofficial end of summer, the origins of this unique holiday are quite complex to say the least.

The first official Labor Day celebration in the United States was held on September 5, 1882, primarily in New York City. During its first few years, Labor Day was not recognized as a national holiday but was held as a local day of celebration to honor the labors of the common workers in various urban areas throughout the country. In fact, the idea for a day to honor laborers had been tossed around during the Civil War, as a way for the Union to pay homage to the superiority of the free labor system v. that of slave labor. For this reason, many northern urban centers began holding unofficial labor days, but nothing on a national scale ever came to fruition.

Over the next decade, however, a number of public uprisings resulting from labor disputes and economic crises caused the federal government to rethink its position. For example, on May 4, 1886, striking workers and other supporters gathered at the Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the efforts being made by big business to block the implementation of the standard eight-hour work day. Just four days earlier, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had unanimously voted to accept and support the eight-hour work week as a standard practice. However, several large businesses including the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. challenged the decision and refused to cave in. Both sides grew impatient and several protests irrupted into violence. As a result, protesters to the May 4th gathering at Haymarket Square were urged to, "Arm Yourselves and Appear in Full Force!", which they did. As the crowds grew, police responded to prevent and violence. In the midst of the excitement, an overzealous member of the crowd threw a large bomb at police, killing at least three officers and several protesters. What became known as the Haymarket Affair sent shock waves throughout the country and furthered the divide between common laborers and big business.

A few years later, economic depression took tensions to an even higher level than ever. The Panic of 1893, which was the result of th over expansion of the nation's railroads and questionable bank financing, caused tensions between workers and big business to reach a boiling point. In the same way that hosing expansion and foolish bank practices have caused much of our economic troubles today, the over expansion of railroads caused the industry to come to a screeching halt. As a result, jobs were lost and wages decreased.

In the wake of the Panic of 1893 came the Pullman Strike of 1894. As the Pullman Palace Car Company (a railroad company) began cutting jobs, decreasing wages, and increasing the daily work hours of its workers, more laborers began organizing. Eventually they began to strike in Pullman, Illinois. Initially there were only 3,000 workers who refused to work, however, that number soon increased to over 200,000 and spead to over 27 states, thus effectively causing the nation's railroad system (and much of its economy) to become stuck in the mud. In response, President Grover Cleveland dispatched the U.S. Marshals and over 12,000 U.S. soldiers under the command of Lt. General Nelson Miles, to break up the strike and return the laborers to their work. Long story short, General Miles' efforts were effective, but over 50 people were killed and over $300,000 dollars in damage was caused.

In response to this event, which was obviously received in a negative fashion by the American public, legislation was quickly created to make Labor Day a national holiday. Only a mere six days after the end of the Pullman Strike, President Cleveland asked Congress to pass a bill that officially recognized Labor Day throughout the nation, which they did on June 28, 1894. Obviously this was done in an effort to appease the masses who were already infuriated over the dwindling American economy and the president's decision to sent troops to break up a lawful strike. Sadly for Cleveland, his efforts were in vain, as he was easily beaten by William McKinley in the election of 1896, thanks in part to his handling of the Panic of 1893 and the Pullman Strike.

So here we are in the 21st century, and like our predecessors we too face an economy that is on the skids (though let's not be dramatic here. The Panic of 1893 was MUCH worse). But unlike our forefathers, we live in a time when the rights of the working class are in a far better state...


...At least in some respects.

Yes, we too have many who work for low wages, endure long hours, receive terrible benefits, etc., etc., etc. Yes, like the J.P. Morgans of the 19th century, we too have corrupt corporations who suck the wealth from the people, use their money irresponsibly, fall on hard times, ask and receive a bailout from the government and then turn around and create jobs in China so that their stock goes up a few points. I guess greed knows no limits, no matter the era.

I guess I can't help but wonder if Labor Day is just like those peasant holidays from the Medieval era. Are the nobles of society simply appeasing us rabble peasants by giving us a free day from the fields where we can indulge ourselves in various forms of entertainment? Sure smells like it.

All hail Caesar!

Here's a brief video on the history of Labor Day from the History Channel:

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