The Lost Holiday
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The U.S. national holiday of Labor Day is celebrated today for about the 119th time — but who’s counting? If we look at Labor Day anthropomorphically, it has a number of unenviable problems. As the bookend that brackets the un-official end of summer, Labor Day has a crummy job and few friends. Its distant relative, Memorial Day, has it made by contrast as the gateway to Summer vacations while carrying the solemn duty of honoring the nation’s fallen protectors of freedom. Surely everyone loves a holiday if for no other reason than it usually means a day off from work. But in the case of Labor Day, perhaps it’s chief irony is that it means nothing more to most people than a day on which they need not labor while a far more busy Fall schedule lurks just ahead.
Labor Day has an ameliorating political history. Wikipedia describes the day as having possibly been inspired by our Northern neighbor Canada — or not — and first proposed in 1882 by Matthew Maguire, a machinist while he served as secretary of the Central Labor Union. “By the time it became a federal holiday in 1894, thirty states officially celebrated Labor Day. Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland reconciled with [the] leader of the labor movement. Fearing further conflict, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday; Cleveland signed it into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The September date originally chosen by the CLU of New York and observed by many of the nation’s trade unions for the past several years was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers’ Day because Cleveland was concerned that observance of the latter would be associated with the nascent Communist, Syndicalist and Anarchist movements that, though distinct from one another, had rallied to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in International Workers’ Day… All U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the territories have made it a statutory holiday.”
But wait a minute: Who this day considers themselves a laborer? Today, Mr. Maguire’s job title would likely be something like “industrial engineer”, and aspiring to become a laborer is not likely high on the list for most people trying to enter the workforce. Yet more than ever, it is statistically — regardless of attained level of education — where most new job market entrants are likely to land, at least initially. Laboring also conjures up a certain nostalgic rite of passage in the U.S. Even our esteemed Spend Matters Managing Director, Jason Busch, can occasionally be heard waxing fondly at Friday happy hour about his first job as a commercial dishwasher — a domestic task that he continues to cheerfully perform. Beyond this vague romance, no one wants to be a laborer any more, just as nearly everyone considers themselves “middle class” — not “working class” — despite the statistical economic anomaly that the U.S. middle class continues to shrink like a raison.
Regardless, given the predominant anti-communist tenor of the 20th century, it’s rather surprising that this national holiday that ostensibly celebrates working laborers has adamantly survived for such a long time. Timing, if not everything, is important to Labor Day’s tenacity sandwiched as it is between Summer and Fall. And current economic realities and widely divergent labor job titles, wages and benefits aside, let’s all take a moment to reflect today upon the incredibly hard granular and gritty work that our ancestors and neighbors, alive and past-on, diligently performed throughout most of their lives without adequate heat, air conditioning, safety standards or medical care. They were a salad bowl of citizens, descendants of slaves, recent immigrants, skilled, unskilled and even over qualified men and women who wanted the best they could provide for their families.
Those who build, repair and maintain our equipment, homes, buildings, roads, sanitary systems and utility supply lines today comprise a similar mix of humanity and values. They lead similar lives to those who labored before them and deserve our universal appreciation and respect.