Archie P. McDonald
of our national holidays commemorate civic events or religious observances; Labor
Day celebrates the concept that work is noble and worthy of honor for its own
Eighteenth and nineteenth century European travelers often commented
on the industriousness of their American cousins, perhaps without appreciating
fully the abundance of the work and the scarceness of workers. Besides, before
the nineteenth century America lacked a distinct laboring or working class; this
was the consequence of the Industrial Revolution which drew people from the land
and made them wage earners in cities where the factories and mills were located.
Prior to the Civil War no real labor unions existed in America. Shortly after
that conflict the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor were organized,
but they, too, were less unions of workers than organizations of persons who supported
the laboring class and sought through education and legislation to improve their
L. Gompers, a cigar maker, organized the first real union in 1881, by 1884 known
as the American Federation of Labor, or better still by its acronym, “AF of L.”
Peter J. McGuire, a Knight, a founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters,
and the tenth-born of an Irish American family, persuaded New York’s Central Labor
Union to recognize the many working men and women of the city with a parade on
September 5, 1882. That was the first Monday in September, a date McGuire suggested
for no greater significance than its median status between July 4th and Thanksgiving.
Many of New York’s workers took the day off to participate in or view
the parade, then filled out the day with picnics, games, and, inescapably, with
oratory. They had such a good time they repeated the celebration the next year,
and in 1884 the Knights of Labor officially designated the first Monday of September
as Labor Day.
was the first state to give Labor Day statutory recognition, and did so in 1887;
New Jersey and New York followed, and by 1893 thirty states recognized the observance.
The number of states commemorating Labor Day increased steadily until only Wyoming
did not by 1928; now, all states and the District of Columbia declare Labor Day
an official holiday.
Labor Day has not been exclusively for laborers for
decades. The advent of the “white-collar worker” and the need for everyone to
have a respite from their work resulted in the holiday becoming a reminder of
the value of work more than the workers themselves.
Labor Days means lots
of things. In a “more civilized time,” as I have sometimes said, it marked the
end of summer and the beginning of school--now we do that in smothering August,
perhaps because we have air conditioning and mostly to accommodate common calendars
that end before Christmas. In that time, Labor Day marked the beginning of state
and national political campaigns, which we now suffer all the year through. It
was also the time past when no civilized Southern woman would wear white shoes;
now I see them in January.
Labor Day remains, however buffeted by the
winds of change, a time to remember the nobility of work and to honor those whose
efforts produce the wealth of the world. Barbeque, visit the lake, celebrate it
as you wish; but give a wave to the fireman, the policeman, the EMS worker, and
all who must work while we play.
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Accounts of the Civil War