Labor Day seems so straightforward... but its origins are not. Strikes, riots, police brutality, trials, socialism, spin control — when you hoist that brew or flip that burger, remember that the American worker has come a long way since 1882.
It's no coincidence that Mark Twain wrote (with Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner) his satire on land speculation and money lust, The Gilded Age
, in the decade leading up to Labor Day's creation in 1882. Tension between the "haves" and the "have-nots," the "bes" and the "wanna-bes," had been growing for some time, largely due to the inevitable correction (sound familiar?) that followed the feverish economic expansion at the end of the Civil War. The 1870s had seen the police beating of unemployed men in New York City's Tompkins Square Riot
, the first national labor stoppage in the Great Railroad Strike
(by workers protesting wage cuts), and a follow-on strike in Chicago in which the U.S. Army killed 30 residents. The mostly ill-educated, often immigrant blue-collar workers of the time were very conscious about not getting what they regarded as a fair share of the American pie — that bankers, big investors and corporate owners seemed to be getting extraordinarily rich on others' sweat.
So Labor Day made sense, especially to organized labor, which at the time was hardly organized at all. Workers were only beginning to understand that industrialization could "de-skill" them (to use a phrase made famous by philosopher and priest Ivan Illich
) — that the mechanization of work could demote them from masters of their crafts to slaves of machines, could depress their wages and/or eliminate their jobs. Labor leaders in America weren't Luddites
— the 19th
Century British activists who destroyed automated equipment — but they recognized the threat from technology, the market system's drive toward efficiency. And they knew that celebrating the workman, projecting a more positive image, would help their cause... especially when contrasted with the so-called "robber barons
," wealthy bankers and industrialists like John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, Leland Stanford, George Pullman and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
The very first Labor Day, according to the U.S. Department of Labor
, was held in New York City on September 5, 1882, at the suggestion of a Celtic tradesman, either Matthew Maguire or Peter McGuire. Evidence once supported the latter — conveniently, because he was a founder, four years later, of the American Federation of Labor, and said — in perfect "print me!" prose — that the holiday would honor people "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold." (Chances are good those words weren't originally his, but internet repetion has buried any more-accurate attribution.) There was, in fact, a parade that first year... but according to researcher Ted Watts, for years Labor Day parades were protest marches in favor the eight-hour workday, with union non-participants fined for failing to show up. Some 10,000 people did — estimates run as high as 30,000 — which is quite a showing for the time.
But Matthew Maguire was at the parade — indeed, according to some accounts, rode in the lead carrige with abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Twain's more famous Hartford neighbor, fellow novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and who would later condemn workers during the railway strike noted above). Watts also argues that McGuire, rather than Maguire, was credited with creating Labor Day because Samuel Gompers, the founder and never-challenged head of the AFL, sanitized history to take credit for his own union, and to distance Labor Day from the more radical Maguire, who became a Socialist Labor Party leader in New Jersey. He would end up running for the Vice Presidency of the U.S. in 1896, as a Socialist.
What's not in dispute is that Labor Day was "nationalized" in 1894, within a week of the Pullman Strike
, which followed — yes — another economic downtown and a cut in railroad workers' wages (for what was still a 12-hour workday). Over 100,000 workers at 29 railway companies around the country were soon on strike, and 13 were killed after President Grover Cleveland, playing the "interfering with U.S. Mail" card, sent in U.S. marshals and Army troops to break up the "industrial action." Its leader, head of the American Railway Union Eugene V. Debs
, was imprisoned for six months for violating a court order to end the strike... and emerged a socialist, having read Karl Marx
while behind bars. Debs would run for president five times on the Socialist Party of America ticket starting in 1900, and in 1920 received 6 percent of the popular vote (near a million ballots).
Labor Day seems so simple, doesn't it? Barbeques and beer, hanging out with families and friends, shopping at get-ready-for-fall sales, mourning (or celebrating) the end of summer and the beginning of school. And while that simplicity hides Labor Day's complex origins, it underlines, too, that "labor" — despite the modern decline in union membership, the offshoring of jobs, the continuing de-industrialization and de-skilling of the U.S. workforce — is far better off now than it was in 1882. We still live in a Gilded Age, not a Golden Age... but as long as Americans want to work, and work hard, we'll do just fine.