A Day Unhonored

Few U.S. national holidays are observed as mindlessly as Labor Day.


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Few U.S. national holidays are observed as mindlessly as Labor Day. For most Americans, it is simply a farewell-to-summer celebration, one last chance to go to the pool or have a family cookout. These days, most schools are already in session, so the day isn’t the savored last reprieve it used to be for children. Even the greeting card companies haven’t figured out what to do with Labor Day.

We have forgotten that Labor Day had its origins during the period of bitter unrest that arose among America's mostly immigrant workforce in the 1880s. The Industrial Revolution was proving to be revolting indeed. Revolting conditions in sweatshops and slums led to revolting workers in mobs on the streets.

Many historians now credit a machinist named Matthew Maquire with first proposing the holiday, but he was a Marxist and a radical. So for decades, a less controversial figure named Peter McGuire, a carpenter and union organizer, was hailed as the holiday's founder. Apparently, the first U.S. Labor Day celebrations did occur in early September but some say that politicians cynically rushed to establish a September date, thus appeasing the leaders of organized labor while distancing the American observance from May 1st, the day widely proclaimed as their own by international worker movements, whose militancy frightened U.S. business leaders of the day. Labor Day got off on the wrong foot and is still somehow out of step a hundred years later.

So we are left with a hollow day, not a holiday, a day whose meaning is obscure and largely irrelevant to most Americans. A day to celebrate the entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and boosting a burgeoning economy would seem to make more sense to some of us. Anyone for Free Enterprise Day?

I think not. If the movement to win the rights of workers is not to be commemorated for its lasting historical significance, let us at least acknowledge the dignity of work. The ability to apply human energy to purposeful, gainful tasks is a defining human trait. We were not created for idleness nor only for leisure. Nor were we created to be slaves to work, either because wages from a job are too low or because the lure of profit from a business is too high. We work to live, not live to work.

If these simple ideas get us to thinking about other social and political issues, that would be fine, too. It might even be enough to honor a day left too much unhonored.