Labor Day (without a ‘u’)

Last Monday we Americans were off work. Well most of us anyway. In the UK this would have been regarded as a “Bank Holiday”, but over here it’s just called a “holiday”. Yeah, a day off work in the USA is called a “Holiday” and is distinct from a “Vacation” which is what we would call a Holiday. This particular holiday results from “a celebration of the Labor movement.”

Obviously, the rest of the world has a day that celebrates the Labour movement, but it’s in May, and called “May Day”. Any idea why it’s in May? How about some idea why the USA uniquely celebrates the Labour movement in September?

Well, thanks to Mr Fritz, I have learned the answers to these questions, and they’re quite intriguing.

To most Americans, “Labor Day” signifies the official end of summer. If you ask them what Labor day is all about, at best you’ll get some shit about the mythical “Labor Movement”, but more often you’ll hear about barbecues on the beach and the end of summer. There is an added irony to this we’ll discuss later.

In reality the history is a lot simpler, more understandable, and therefore prone to revisionism. It’s also pretty bloody fascinating.
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The first recognition of the Labor Movement in the USA is frequently cited as occurring in 1882, in New York. But it didn’t become a national Holiday in the USA until 1894 when President Grover Cleveland declared it as such. Any quick research on Google will yield this. For example, see what the US department of Labor has to say on the topic of Labor Day.

But there are two astonishing occurrences underpinning these events that are suspiciously absent from not only the standard government documentation, but also from the general American Psyche:

  1. The wonderfully understated, Haymarket Affair
  2. The Pullman Strike

The Pullman Strike

Many people will be familiar with the name “Pullman”, especially in relation to luxurious trains, and this is why: Pullman built trains. Obviously he didn’t build them himself, he hired a bunch of little men to do it for him, but they were his trains. Being a philanthropist, he built an entire town for his workers to inhabit. This was a show town that would prove to the cynical masses how Capitalism was the only way to utopia. Furthermore he insisted that all of his workers live there, because they were worth it.
All went well until 1894 when the company started to notice decreased profits, at which point they had to take drastic measures to keep their philanthropic organisation going. The only possible option was to reduce the number of workers, and then reduce the wages of the remaining workers.

Now, these ungrateful workers started to get the hump. The ones without jobs had no way to pay the rent, and the ones with jobs couldn’t afford the rent (the utopian houses they were obliged to live in carried massively high rents). Their reaction was strange; rather than work much harder to pay for their rent and living, they decided to strike! Talk about ungrateful!

Pullman was rightly angry about this abuse of his good will and wrote to the President: Grover Cleveland. Being a shrewd man with a full understanding of industrial relations, Cleveland sent in the troops. Thousands of them. That would surely sort out the strikers. There was no way this could go wrong. Who could have imagined fatalities occurring?

The perceived leader of the rebellion, Eugene V. Debs, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to custody. However, after such a blatant abuse of the working people in the US, Cleveland stood to take a battering in the election. So, he did what every brave man would have done to maintain his position of power and influence: he awarded the working people of America with a single day off a year.

The upshot of the whole incident can be summarised as

  • The strikers lost.
  • Debs was imprisoned.
  • The workers in the US get a day off each year.

There was another interesting side effect: Debs was not a Socialist when he entered prison; he was simply angered by the injustices of his society. However, during his incarceration he read Marx and became a thorn in the side of the government, and governments to come.

The weirdest twist to this story comes next in the tale of…

The Haymarket “Affair”

Eight years before the Pullman incident, in May 1886, another euphemism took place. Despite its name, it wasn’t an “affair” at all – it has been described more accurately as a “massacre” or “riot” that lead to the rest of the world celebrating the Labour Movement on May 1st. The only country that celebrates its Labor movement on a different day is the USA. Funny old world.

Around the time of the Haymarket Massacre there was a great deal of unrest amongst the workers in the industrial centers of America. There was a movement afoot to limit the working day to eight hours so that workers could be assured of eight hours leisure and eight hours rest. Obviously the employing classes were prepared to do anything to prevent this and used every resource, be it private or public to prevent it. Strikebreakers were shipped in, and tensions flared. The Police, in their traditional role as protectors of the wealthy, were bound to protect the strikebreakers and resorted to gunfire. Two strikers were killed.

The following day a mass protest was called, and the Police attended in large numbers. After the speeches from the leaders of the rally, the Police attempted to disperse the crowd and chaos ensued. A pipe bomb was thrown at the Police which killed one officer and the Police responded with gunfire. Around 60 officers were wounded by the gunfire from their own ranks.

As an indirect result of this event, May 1st became the International workers day. When Grover Cleveland found himself in severe danger of ruining his chances of re-election 8 years later, he decided to create a national holiday in order to appease the workers…but chose September as the month so as to disassociate it from the “other” celebrations in May, which could have evoked unpleasant memories.

What strikes me as the most tragic failure of this movement is that now, despite the typical working day in America being the fair eight hours, fought for by their brave ancestors, the majority of the poor people end up working two eight-hour jobs just to stay alive. These are frequently the same people that vote Employer in the elections. How did this happen?


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