Why Don't We Labor On Labor Day?

The history of an American holiday.

Once a respite for those tired, huddling masses, Labor Day is now when almost all Americans, from Wall Street to Wisteria Lane, lean back in our patio chairs and celebrate how much we’ve done – by doing nothing. As national holidays go, it’s rather unorganized. The official colors are probably SOLO cup red and Busch Lite blue. The dress code includes water-friendly wear. The traditional meal consists of whatever can be cooked over an open fire or consumed without cutlery, therefore requiring little individual labor.

Like most American privileges, Labor Day was brought about by the hard work it celebrates. The earliest recognition of Labor Day began as a movement among traditional guildsmen, and coalesced into a tense parade (some called it a march) in New York in 1882. By 1894, President Cleveland had made it official: the first Monday in September each year would be celebrated in honor of organized labor – a group for which Cleveland felt nothing but abhorrence (he’d spent most of the previous week locking up participants in the Chicago Pullman strike). But such is politics.

That first Labor Day parade, organized by the Knights of Labor to coincide with their annual convention and ensure a good turn-out, was also in support of the now ubiquitous eight-hour work week. A common slogan: “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest,” illustrated the desire for leisure time and freedom from punishing shifts that could last from early dawn till dusk – it is estimated that the average 1880s workweek in manufacturing was over 60 hours. Other grievances included child labor, lack of safety standards, and fair pay.

These difficult conditions had not abated by 1906, when Upton Sinclair’s novel on the urban wilds, The Jungle, introduced the occupants of doily adorned parlors to the notion that hard work didn’t always pay. Sinclair’s harrowing story of working class life in Chicago’s meat-packing district told of workers falling to their deaths in rendering tanks (their remains to afterward be sold as lard), sexual harassment and rape in factories, mass exploitation, and company streets churned into muddy quagmires so deep that children, falling from plank walkways, drowned.

Sinclair had meant to stir the pot, and it nearly boiled over. International sales of U.S. meat plummeted, and a skeptical President Teddy Roosevelt (who regarded Sinclair as a troublesome rabble-rouser) dispatched two of his trusted deputies to Chicago to investigate Sinclair’s claims. Their ensuing report to Roosevelt and Congress was disheartening enough to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration and stringent standards for food safety.

Across the globe, many other countries celebrate a form of Labor Day on May 1, known as May Day, or International Workers’ Day. A common workers holiday since the 1800s, Americans might likewise have officially observed May Day, but for the May anniversary of the traumatic 1886 Haymarket riots (and deaths). This unpleasant association prompted an already chastened Cleveland to select a date less freighted with memory, preferably at the opposite end of the calendar. May Day itself would be appropriated by other powers; Lenin made it the day célèbre of communism.

Some decades and two world wars later, feeling the need to put a final nail in anything vaguely Communist, President Eisenhower appropriated May 1 as Law Day. He designated it to celebrate what he pointedly noted “distinguishes our governmental system from the type of government that rules by might alone … [the rule of law] has served as an inspiration and a beacon light for oppressed peoples of the World seeking freedom, justice and equality of the individual under law.” Still not content, Eisenhower further declared May 1 Loyalty Day as well (earlier celebrated as Americanization Day). American Labor Day was quite intentionally separated from International Workers’ Day, now permanently associate with communism.

Today, observing Labor Day on dates other than May 1 is a bond that former British colonies share; Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Jamaica all fire up their respective barbies, grills, and barbeques in celebration of an honest day’s work. In Australia, states and territories choose their own days to observe; in Jamaica, Labor Day has been grafted to the remnants of May 24’s Empire Day, a celebration recognizing Queen Victoria’s emancipation of slaves. Canada celebrates in September, and New Zealand in October.

Since the 1800s times have changed, not just for industrial workers, but for employees and the culture at large. The workplace is a safer, healthier, more satisfying place than it was a century ago, and many of today’s unions have simply outlived their utility. Respect for hard work is such a common American virtue that even our profligates claim to keep their plastic surgery-enhanced noses to the grindstone; heiress Paris Hilton has declared to the media, “I work hard.”

Challenged as Americans are by continuing unemployment and low job creation, our country this Monday will celebrate a history of great work ethics and even greater rewards. Now the day that began as a celebration of the working masses is a day free of labor for all. Americans have much to commemorate; despite our current struggles (and the bad job news) we still live and work in the best conditions in the world. Perhaps the greatest success of Labor Day is that as most Americans escape the workplace for a long weekend of freedom and fun they no longer remember how this holiday originated, or why it is important.