If national holidays have anything in common it’s that those of us who celebrate them by taking the day off don’t give much thought to the origin or meaning of the holiday. That’s true of secular holidays (never mind Religious holidays) from the Fourth of July to Memorial Day and right on through to this week’s day off, Labor Day.
The first Labor Day was held in 1882 in New York City. It was proposed, depending on your source, by the Peter McGuire of the Carpenters’ Union or Matthew Maguire of the Machinists’ Union. I like the Carpenters’ Union McGuire for it if only because he called it a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,” which I think is pretty classy.
It did not take long to establish a foothold; by 1894 twenty-three states had passed laws observing Labor Day, and that same year President Cleveland signed the law that made it a national holiday. The character of Labor Day has changed somewhat from when it was a day of celebration by working people with parades, picnics, and speeches. We still have the picnics, of course.
No matter what opinions we may have of labor unions, it was organized labor that created this holiday and a couple of other observances that we may take for granted, but would not want to do without; the weekend and the eight hour day. And as cavalierly as we may expect to have the weekend off and work no more than a 40-hour week, we need to remember that those two universal benefits were bought by the sacrifice and blood—yes, blood—of the men and women of the organized labor movement.
Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and the labor movement was a reaction to the often brutal working conditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1890 fifteen percent of children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed, many in extremely hazardous conditions. Children often worked a 14 hour day as many as seven days a week. There was little, if any, attempt at providing humane working conditions, let alone safe ones.
The Triangle Shirt Waist Company fire in 1911 took the lives of 146 young women who were trapped in the upper floors of the ten story New York City factory building. There were fire escapes, but the doors to them were locked by management to “prevent theft.”
At industrialist John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company mine in 1914 Colorado National Guardsmen machine-gunned a tent city of striking miners and their families in what was to be named the Ludlow Massacre. Two women, 12 children, and 6 miners were killed in the gun battle and the fire that ensued. At issue was the eight work hour day, among others.
The important point I am trying to make with these examples is that working people do not put their lives in serious jeopardy for petty reasons. What today we take for granted, whether it is our freedom or something as simple as the weekend, were paid for by the sacrifice of those who have gone before us. Just as it is important to remember the sacrifices of our service men and women from 1776 to today, it is important to remember the sacrifices of citizens who put their lives on the line for the benefit of working people.
Were the tactics and politics of those labor organizations radical? By any definition of “radical” the answer is yes; but of course, “radical” is in the eye of the beholder, and what was Common Sense to American colonists in 1776 was treason to the British.
Emma Goldman said in 1917, “The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.”
That’s worth thinking about.
Jim Elliott is a former state senator who represented Mineral, Sanders, and parts of Lincoln and Missoula Counties.