Happy Leisure Day; Labor Day Is about Taking a Break from Work, Not Celebrating Unions

Article excerpt


When the Marathon County, Wisc., Labor Council announced two weeks ago that no Republicans would be invited to their Labor Day parade in the town of Wausau, it seemed like a throwback to a bygone era. Labor Council President Randy Radtke said, We didn't start this fight in Wisconsin, but we're responding to anti-worker positions and policies supported by local Republican politicians. Mr. Radtke is not exactly Samuel Gompers - the late, longtime president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) - but he definitely exudes that old-time spirit.

Faced with a public backlash - and possible financial repercussions - the labor council abandoned the barricades and lifted the ban on Republicans in their parade. Mr. Radtke spat that GOP lawmakers should be ashamed to even show their faces, but 7th District Rep. Sean Duffy, who represents Wausau in Congress and had been banned from the march, struck a conciliatory note. I think again what people want is come together start working together and find some common ground, the Republican said. If we are going to create jobs and bring prosperity back, it's going to be everyone working together to make sure that happens and I'm willing to do that and I'm not walking away from this with hurt feelings.

The Labor Council attempted to harness the symbolism of a holiday that has lost most of its original meaning. These days, Labor Day is just a bookmark. It signals the end of summer, the start of school, the advent of the political hustings and the last chance to buy a car before the new model year arrives in showrooms. Labor Day is associated with picnics, sporting events and shopping. It could more accurately be called Leisure Day, and as such is a distinctly American holiday.

Labor Day is a Canadian import, first celebrated in Toronto in 1872. The most noted foundational event for the American holiday took place 10 years later when the General Assembly of the Order of the Knights of Labor (KoL) convened in New York City. At that time, some labor organizations were secretive and not given to public displays, but Matthew McGuire, the secretary of the New York Central Labor Union, invited those attending to review a parade of laborers at Union Square. During the festive review, KoL board member Robert Price turned to Gen. Worthy Foreman Richard Griffiths and said, This is Labor Day in earnest, Uncle Dick. The name stuck.

On June 28, 1894, Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day, though in those days when Washington's power was refreshingly limited, a federal holiday applied only to the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The move was politically motivated; President Grover Cleveland and the Democratic Congress were trying to repair relations with labor after putting down the Pullman Strike that had paralyzed U.S. railroads in the West. But then as now, people were more interested in actually having jobs than in symbolic political gestures. The country was still recovering from the Panic of 1893, and the Janesville, Wisc., Daily Gazette editorialized that, The workingmen would prefer that Congress should give them a chance to labor, than that it should make Labor Day a national holiday. …