Traverse City Record-Eagle

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September 3, 2012

The first celebration of labor in America

Of all the holidays on the American calendar, Labor Day is the only one whose origins have what might be called a socially didactic quality. The parades, the speeches, the day of rest, were all initially aimed at sending messages about the class struggle.

The grand marshal of the first Labor Day celebration, held in New York City in 1882, has been quoted as saying, ''Let us offer monopolists and their tools of both political parties such a sight as will make them think more profoundly than they have ever thought before.''

According to Ellen M. Litwicki, author of ''America's Public Holidays,'' that first Labor Day was an utterly different kind of holiday than the one we know now, which has little to do with profound thinking of any kind by monopolists, their political tools, or even ordinary workers. Following a mammoth parade, New Yorkers in 1882 crowded into a park where, after much speech-making, they "ate their lunches, drank beer, listened to German singing societies and Irish fiddlers, danced to union bands, and viewed fireworks displays in the evening.'' It sounds like the Fourth of July, with a touch of St. Patrick's Day and May Day thrown in.

Most of us have trouble hearing the ''labor'' in Labor Day any longer — the use of the word, that is, that distinguishes labor from management or worker from capitalist. The very radicalism of devoting a day to the honoring of labor's role in the creation of national wealth has been lost to the waning of both union power and a proud sense of class distinction. Laborers have been redefined as ''consumers,'' a category that somehow muddies everything.

But in its time the idea behind Labor Day was genuinely radical, as radical in its own way as the origin of Independence Day. As Ms. Litwicki observes, one of the critical steps in the evolution of Labor Day was balancing the class defiance, even the potential violence, of some forms of trade unionism with the patriotism and the conciliatory spirit of others. What resulted, when it became a legal holiday in 1894, was a version of Labor Day that managed to celebrate business and industry as well as the unions. It also made room at the front of the parade for politicians, who had been excluded from the original Labor Days. It became a holiday that honored sociability more than solidarity.

Now, of course, Labor Day is the starting bell for the steeplechase of autumn. The labor we hear in the name of the day is our own labor, whether we are union or not, worker or management. Many of the things that the members of the parade in 1882 were seeking have been gained by their successors.

What the rest of us have achieved since 1882 is a certain pride in being overworked, a feeling that we live in a whirlwind of effort from which there really is no virtue in ceasing.

It is impossible to parade in celebration of that. It is only possible to take the day off, all the way off, and to remember why it was worth honoring labor in the first place.

Published Sept. 3, 2001 in the The New York Times

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