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

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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, Wis., 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. Holidays are not in favor just now; there are too many of them, particularly for the unemployed. Democrats paid a heavy price for the economic bad times. In the election the following November, Republicans gained 130 seats, the largest midterm shellacking in U.S. history.

Labor Day was not intended to be a battleground, but rather a day for reflection and reconciliation. Knights of Labor leader Terence Vincent Powderly wrote in 1893, The real significance of the American Labor Day lies in the fact that on that day no question of local importance, no strike, no controversy or dispute shall interfere with the observance of the day ... . While parades, picnics, festivals and games were permissible, the principle feature of the exercises was to consist of lectures and discourses upon topics relating to the welfare of the industrial masses. …