In the U.S., Labor Day wasn’t always Celebrated in September
Author: John Kretzschmar
Publication: Prairie Fire
Date: August 2011
The holiday we call Labor Day is a contradiction. It is a holiday to relax and enjoy family and friends, not a day to labor. Nevertheless, thoughtful people use it as a time to reflect on the current state of American labor.
As a federal holiday, Labor Day is older than Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day. The first time Labor Day was celebrated in September was in 1882, when the New York City Knights of Labor held a parade in honor of organized labor’s contributions to expanding democracy, humanizing the employment relationship and improving the nation’s quality of life. It took another 12 years for it to become the federal holiday we know as Labor Day.
It surprises most Americans that unions and their allies were annually celebrating the ability of unions to extend democracy into the workplace as far back as the 1790s! Labor unions date back to colonial times, and by the 1790s labor unions, composed of shoemakers, coopers, printers, shipwrights, carpenters and other skilled crafts, existed in the major port cities of the emerging nation. These unions, together with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican societies of the day, took the Fourth of July as their day. They joined together to drink toasts to “The Fourth of July, may it ever prove a momento [sic] to the oppressed to rise and assert its rights.”
People who sold their intelligence, experience and strength to an employer were likewise without an independent voice in the workplace and understood the analogy. Unions believed that introducing a democratic voice into the workplace was a natural extension of what the 13 colonies did when they united to gain a voice in determining the nation’s future. The Fourth of July served as a symbolic date with which the nascent labor movement identified.
Those workers understood the employer/employee relationship was unequal at its core. It had evolved from the master/servant relationship where the power imbalance was quite clear. Employers, like masters before them, had the unilateral right to make all the decisions within the workplace. The essential right that an employee had, which a servant did not, was the right to quit. Individual employees knew that only through uniting in solidarity, as the 13 colonies had done, could employees gain the collective strength to work out issues critical to jointly determining their future quality of life.
By the 1820s and 1830s the Fourth of July celebration of organized labor’s contributions had become tradition. Labor unions and Workingmen’s Parties had settled on the Fourth of July as a day for parades, festivals and picnics. The Philadelphia Workingmen’s Association viewed unions as patriotic. Here is one slogan from the 1830s: “The objects we have in view are hallowed by the sympathy of patriotism—it is to finish the glorious work of the revolution.”
The theme of renewing “the Spirit of 1776” was an important symbol. Advocates wanted to expand unionism into every workplace where employers reduced workers to nothing more than costs to be controlled. They saw their work as completing “the unfinished work” of the American Revolution. Organized labor’s annual use of the Fourth of July became a tradition lasting until the 1880s.
Not until the 1870s did the majority of the American workforce become employees. Even then, the employment relationship was nowhere as humanized as it is today. It was common to work 10- to 16-hour days and put in six- and seven-day workweeks. The workplace was quite dangerous, and the pay was very low. The changes that we too often take for granted today did not come easily nor did they result in the generosity of employers realizing that they were working their employees too long and paying them too little. Organized labor worked hard and long with as many allies as it could find to accomplish giving ordinary employees a shot at achieving the “American Dream.”
Today, too often the workforce sees itself as a group of individuals, working in individual silos, with little appreciation of the concept that “we are all in this together.” Today’s employees do not know the history of American labor unions or that their foremothers and forefathers were the key actors in humanizing the employment relationship. There is little appreciation for either the sacrifices it took or the idea that “there’s strength in numbers” when it comes to the workplace.
In today’s economy Americans can no longer merely regard Labor Day as the last long weekend of the summer. It is time to remember Labor Day as a celebration of organized labor’s contribution to ensuring that our nation’s prosperity is fairly shared. It is a time to dedicate ourselves to understanding that employees are more than merely costs to be controlled. It is time to expand meaningful democracy into the workplace. It is a time for reapplying “the Spirit of 1776” to expand unionism into places where it does not now exist, and to once again help ordinary working families have a shot at the American Dream.
John Kretzschmar is the director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies. During his work life, he has been a member of industrial, construction and public sector unions.