Monday, September 5, 2005

Labour Day

"Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country, All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation." (Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor)

Today is Labour Day in the United States and Canada. Despite Samuel Gompers' words above, I must admit that Labour Day never has meant too terribly much to me. To be honest, I don't know of anyone who actually celebrates Labour Day. My family never did anything special for the holiday. I do know a few people who hold barbecues or go to the Lake of Ozarks or go camping on Labour Day weekend, but that is more because it is a "three day weekend" than because it is Labour Day. In many ways, for me it is simply a day off from work rather than a real holiday. I get the feeling that is the case for most people.

Of course, that is not the way it was supposed to be. Labour Day is meant to honour the hard work and achievements of the American worker. Indeed, Labour Day was the brainchild of the American labour movement. It is uncertain as to who actually came up with the idea of Labour Day. Some believe that it was Peter J. McGuire, who was general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and also co-founded the American Federation of Labour. Others believe it was Matthew Maguire, who was the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York and who would go on to become the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey. The one thing that does seem clear is that the Central Labour Union celebrated the first Labour Day on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. In 1884 the first Monday of September was settled upon as the date for Laobur Day. The Central Labour Union in New York City persuaded other groups to celebrate that day as "a working man's holiday." By 1885 Labour Day was being celebrated in other cities.

It would take a bit of time before Labour Day received national recognition. Various cities recognised the holiday in 1885 and 1886. By 1987 Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York all recognised Labour Day as an official state holiday. Other states would follow suit. It was in 1894 that the United States Congress passed the act which made Labour Day a legal, national holiday. Hard as it may be for many of us to believe today, they actually did celebrate Labour Day in the early years. Street parades would be held, as were picnics and such. Later, speeches by various important personages would become part of the celebration.

Of course, it seems to me that all of this has changed, at least by the Sixties. I have never seen or even heard of a Labour Day parade in my lifetime. I don't recall any significant speeches being made by any important people on Labour Day. I do know families who hold picnics and barbecues on Labour Day, but I think that has less to do with honouring t he American worker than it does simply taking advantage of a day off from work. Indeed, it seems to me that the most significant event held on Labour Day is the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon, which has very little to do with honouring the American worker either. Beyond the fact that very few, if any, seem to celebrate Labour Day as it was meant to be celebrated, there is also the bitter irony that many people have to work on Labour Day--the very people the day is meant to honour!

I rather suspect that none of this is going to change any time soon. For better or worse, Labour Day has changed from the original vision labour leaders had for the holiday. I suppose that it is sad that the day is not used to honour the American worker. But, then again, perhaps the best way to honour the American worker is to simply give him or her a day off, a day when he or she can enjoy a picnic or a barbecure or go fishing or whatever. Personally, I would rather have a day off from work than have someone honour me anyday....

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