The Real History of Labor Day

The Real History of Labor Day


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Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

Labor Day sounds like the name of a holiday that’s all about American workers, but most of us just see it as the Monday that nets us a coveted three-day weekend during which we can give the summer a last hurrah.

There’s longstanding debate about whether Labor Day is really a holiday for the working class—or a cheap ploy by capitalist overlords to make regular people think they’re valued before heading back to the grind on Tuesday with the expectation that they’ll be grateful for a single day of rest. Either way, you should celebrate it like it is a holiday in honor of laborers, claiming or reclaiming it in a way that honors the working class. Hit the beach, prepare for fall, take advantage of the rampant Labor Day-pegged sales to save a few bucks—but first, let’s learn some history.

When and how did Labor Day start?

Here’s what the Department of Labor says about the holiday: “Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.”

First things first, then. Celebrate the social and economic achievements of your labor over the past year. You worked hard—extra hard, even—during a pandemic, a fraught election season, an ongoing national reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality, climate change, and your own unique issues. Through it all, you generated revenue for your company, checked in dutifully with bosses on Slack and by email, or otherwise contributed in untold ways. Hell, if you spent even a dollar of your hard-earned money on a coffee this year, you contributed to your local economy.

Enjoy your big day, even if some criticize the holiday. (Although they do make some good points.)

What is the criticism of Labor Day?

Two years ago, writer and radical organizer Kim Kelly wrote in Teen Vogue that “Labor Day Is a Government Scam.” That can be true, even as you fire up the grill one last time this weekend or sleep in a little on Monday. It’s not wrong to acknowledge the problems inherent to Labor Day or anything else, especially things handed out by the government, whether they be a single day off from seemingly never-ending work or official statements about, say, our recent pull-out from Afghanistan. Question everything. It’s good praxis.

Did then-president Grover Cleveland sign the Labor Day bill to appeal to working class voters ahead of the 1896 election or to quell leftist dissent? As Kelly explained, Cleveland didn’t even end up seeking reelection, so no one is really sure. There are disputes over which organizer from the time came up with the idea, but what we know for sure is Cleveland designated the first Monday of September as the Laborer’s Holiday.

Kelly took issue with that Labor Department statement, too, pointing out that the “celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers” is only afforded to those American workers who happen to have set schedules and work for companies that allow them to take Monday off at all. The existence of the beach booms and sales we associate with the holiday is proof enough that it’s not for all workers: While you’re at the shore, someone has to work the boardwalk game stalls so you can waste your time trying to win a stuffed animal. While you’re at a car dealership, someone has to work so you can take that test drive. It’s not truly a laborer-celebrating holiday if corporate office workers and CEOs are lounging while lower-waged employees are still toiling, is it? Keep those people in mind if you’re lucky enough to be getting a three-day weekend this year.

Can you still celebrate laborers if the holiday is kind of a sham?

You should definitely celebrate workers, yourself included, on Labor Day and every day! In 2016, New York-based Teamster Tim Goulet challenged the categorization of Labor Day as a “bosses’ holiday” in socialist magazine Jacobin.

“Many depict it as a tokenistic ‘gift’ from capitalist politicians who wanted a sanitized May Day, that could capture militancy and disperse it into ‘responsible’ channels. This narrative calls Labor Day a ‘bosses’ holiday’ that marks the working class’s historic defeat,” he wrote. “This not only misrepresents the day’s history, but also forces us to choose one holiday over the other, as if there were not enough room on the calendar for two days that celebrate workers.”

Goulet pointed out that the same radical thinkers who pushed for and celebrated the early Labor Days are the ones who gave us other hard-fought workers’ victories, like the eight-hour workday.

See, the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882, planned by the Central Labor Union long before Cleveland would officially enshrine it. Goulet explained that the holiday’s roots as a worker-organized event are still meaningful, even if the modern version of the first Monday in September has strayed off-course. Think of all the holidays you celebrate. Which, if any of them, have actually stayed true to their origins? Certainly not Halloween! Surely not Christmas! Holidays evolve, stray from their intended purpose, and get sucked up into the capitalist vortex all the time, but it’s the way we celebrate them and the value we choose to personally attribute to them that makes them special.

What else can we do to celebrate workers?

Every May 1, we get to celebrate May Day, or International Workers’ Day. Labor Day, Goulet noted, predated the 1886 Haymarket events that inspired May Day, but both were and are important to the working class and its people’s history.

We usually think of Labor Day as the end of summer and Memorial Day as the beginning of the season. Memorial Day is important, of course, but next year, try to reframe summer between May and Labor Days, then spend the whole season—and whole year—celebrating laborers and the working class, reading about their history, and finding ways to support them and the parts of the movement that really speak to you.

The workers’ rights movement looks different these days than it did in the 1800s, but it goes on. Activists are now fighting for paid parental leave and paid sick time. Newsrooms around the country are unionizing. Workers in various industries are striking for better treatment, higher wages, and improved benefits. Advocates are fighting for—and winning—$15-an-hour wages. Labor Day is for them and Labor Day is for you—but so are all the other days of the year, so educate yourself and do what you can to help.

And don’t forget to relax Monday if you can. You deserve it and it’s what the original celebrators of Labor Day would want, even if the history and intentions of the holiday have been muddied over time.



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