I can’t believe it was a year ago today that I chose to blog about the origins of Labor Day (in honor of Labor Day). I remember being awestruck by how little American’s knew/know about the history and birth of a day that honors every single one of us and the struggles of our predecessors.
Brief history lesson from last year:
It was 1894, an election year for President Grover Cleveland (former Mayor of Buffalo & former Governor of New York State). The country had been suffering from a significant economic depression, and the American Railway Union went on strike to demand lower rents (which were controlled by their employer back then) and higher wages. Because the American Rail Road System was such an integral part of commerce and transportation for the U.S. back in the late 1800’s a Rail Road (RR) worker’s strike was a BIG DEAL that got pretty ugly and even violent.
Cleveland declared the striking a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to disburse strikers. Cleveland received a lot of flack for his forceful treatment of the RR worker’s strike, but it did officially end in August of 1894.
In an effort to appease a very angry working class, the house and senate unanimously passed a bill declaring the first Monday of every September Labor Day. President Cleveland signed the bill into law just 6 days after his troops broke up the strike. On a side note, while Cleveland DID serve another term as President, he was not re-elected that year.
This is what Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor said about Labor Day in 1898:
“…the day for which toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed… 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 stronger for it.”
This year I was particularly inspired to solicit an “everyman” response to a simple question:
What does Labor Day mean to you?
I was purposeful in asking a vague question. I wanted to see where my colleagues would go with it. Would there be a dominant response, or would it be varied? Would people cite historical rhetoric, or would they take a more meaningful, a more personal approach to their answer?
It’s important to know the history of a day we celebrate the first Monday of every September. But perhaps it’s more important, or at least more socially significant to understand why we (personally) celebrate.
So what did I do? I asked the question of 7 of my colleagues here at work. I blindsided them in a Skype message before their morning coffee thinking maybe I would get a more genuine response!
Without using names, I would like to share those responses with you.
“It’s the last day of summer to hang out with my two awesome kids. It signifies the beginning of a new school year with continued education, growth and making new friends.”
“It’s just a day off, I suppose. We have so few legitimate days off from work that every one is special including Labor Day.”
“I won’t say anything especially sentimental like about the hard work of unions in eras present and bygone. This is my first Labor Day as a full-time employee. What is means for me is an extra day off at the end of a hot summer, where I can relax and re-charge before the weather changes again. I recognize the history, but in all honesty, while I’m sitting around outside in a lawn chair I’m not thinking about the unions.”
“I don’t want to sound ignorant, but for me it means a much needed day off.”
“Labor Day is a day off from work when we can celebrate the job we have and the work we’ve done by relaxing and enjoying ourselves with family and friends on the last official weekend of summer.”
“It means the end of boat days on the lake. Am I supposed to say something positive?”
“It’s for the workers. It’s a day to pay respect and give a shout out to the laborers upon which this nation was built; many lessons learned, lives lost, nations built upon the backs of laborers.”
To me, Labor Day means that I get an extra day to recharge my battery. It means upholding the family tradition of a cookout with an ice-cold beer in my hand. On Labor Day I don’t reflect the way I would, say on MLK Day or Holocaust Remembrance Day. I celebrate my culture; I celebrate the very fact that I have a job, and most importantly having a PAID DAY OFF from my job.
I think that while it’s always important to remember the social/historical significance of the hard work of our ancestors (and how our world has been shaped by them), it’s also OK to “lay down [our] tools of labor for a holiday”.
I want to thank my co-workers who participated in my interrogation this morning and would like to sincerely wish you all a very joyous Labor Day!
(I will now lay down my pen, my phone, my mouse and keyboard)