Blogs > Liberty and Power > Labor Day: Not What You Think

Sep 8, 2011

Labor Day: Not What You Think

Thaddeus Russell, author of A Renegade History of the United States, has the lowdown on Labor Day here. It's not what you think. Clue: President Grover Cleveland, who sent the military to Illinois, over objection of the governor, to break the Pullman strike, signed the bill. (Several workers were killed "at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals."
[Cleveland] and its sponsors intended it not as a celebration of leisure but as a promotion of the great American work ethic. Work, they believed, was the highest calling in life, and Labor Day was a reminder to get back to it. It was placed at the end of summer to declare an end to the season of indolence, and also to distance it from May Day, the spring event that had become a symbol of the radical labor movement.
I note that Wikipedia says:
Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 after the [Pullman] strike when President Grover Cleveland and Congress made appeasement of organized labor a top priority. Legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress six days after the strike ended. Samuel Gompers, head of American Federation of Labor, which had sided with the government in its effort to end the strike by the American Railway Union, spoke out in favor of the holiday.
As Russell writes:
When President Cleveland signed Labor Day into existence in 1884, the conservative American Federation of Labor endorsed the new holiday. In deliberate contrast to “slackers,” union members used their government-approved day off to march in their work clothes alongside floats showing off the tools of their trades. They carried signs declaring the “honor” and “nobility” of work. Labor Day marches were praised by the press as “sober, clean, quiet” demonstrations of “the honest American workingman.”
Bottom line: Labor was being co-opted with promises of a junior partnership in the corporate state long before the New Deal and National Labor Relations Act. 

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