It’s a bit odd that in the United States’ thoroughly corporatized culture we have no national day of honor for the “Captains of Industry,” and yet we do have one for working stiffs: Labor Day! Where did it come from? Who gave this day off to laboring people? History books that bother mentioning Labor Day at all usually credit former president Grover Cleveland with its creation: He signed a law in July of 1894 that proclaimed a holiday for workers in Washington DC and the federal territories.
But Cleveland? Holy Mother Jones! He was an extreme laissez-faire conservative, a “Bourbon Democrat” who never lifted a presidential pinkie to ameliorate the plight of exploited workers. To the contrary, in that same month of 1894, Cleveland enshrined himself in Labor’s Hall of Eternal Infamy: At the behest of robber baron George Pullman and other railroad tycoons, he ordered some 12,000 US Army troops in to crush the historic Pullman Strike, which was being led by union icon Eugene V. Debs. Thirty workers were killed, Debs was arrested on trumped-up charges of conspiracy, and the workers who supported the strike were fired and blacklisted.
Far from being a gift to workers, Cleveland’s recognition of Labor Day was a desperate political ploy to mollify the anger of the union movement he had just decimated. He and his Democratic Party rushed the federal holiday into law only days after his military assault on Pullman strikers. In fact, this day was not “given” by anyone in power – it was taken by laborers themselves. In a bottom-up act of democratic audacity, this was our first national holiday to be put on the calendar by ordinary people. And they were not doing it just to get a day at the beach, but to get into the faces of power.
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Matthew Maguire, a 19th-century New York machinist and an unrelenting activist for higher wages and shorter hours, was the one who first proposed a day-long solidarity rally to focus the forces of labor on reclaiming the democratic rights of workers and gaining a fair share of the wealth they create. Known as “The dauntless Maguire,” he was secretary of the fledgling New York Central Labor Union (CLU), and in May 1882, he called for all 56 unions in the vicinity to make “a public show of organized strength.” The CLU agreed and set the date of Tuesday, September 5, for a “Mammoth Festival, Parade and Pic-Nic.” Adding to the audacity, the union council unilaterally declared that the day was to be a holiday for all workers who wanted to leave their jobs and join the action. Doing so was beyond bold, for it could get them fired – the bosses ruled workplaces with iron hands, compelling 12-hour days, six days a week, for $2 a day.
Grover Cleveland’s recognition of Labor Day was a desperate political ploy to mollify the anger of the union movement he had just decimated.
Sure enough, as the 10 am start time approached, only 80 union members had mustered at City Hall. But then came a faint sound of horns and drums – 200 members of the jewelers union from Newark were just minutes away, arriving with a 35-piece marching band. This small group kicked off the parade, and after a few blocks 400 bricklayers merged with them from a side street, moving in step behind wagons bearing artistic arches of brick testifying to their skills. At nearly every cross street, more marchers joined: longshoremen in checkered jumpers; frame makers wearing beaver hats and carrying huge axes; cigar makers with red banners and singers belting out ballads; piano makers marching with a float bearing a union member pounding out tunes. Thousands of workers paraded – row after row of laborers, marching six abreast with verve for miles through what was then the most ostentatious corridor of wealth and power in the US.
In a 1982 article, historian Richard Hunt described the wondrous incongruity of this mass of working-class Americans striding so purposefully up Fifth Avenue: “They passed August Belmont’s house; they trudged on past the tonish Burnswick Hotel; past the uptown Delmonico restaurant; past the elegant new Union League Club; past the mansion of Vincent Astor. Mrs. Astor – along with many of her millionaire neighbors – was in Newport for the season. Nonetheless, if the consciousness of capitalism was not penetrated, its precinct was.”
The day culminated with a frolicking festival attended by 25,000 at Elm Park, which included the city’s biggest beer garden, a dance pavilion, playgrounds for children and ample picnic areas. (Note to present-day organizers: If you want people to turn out, follow this 1882 model of providing beer, music, food and fun – so people will want to come.)
It was from this march and festival that both the concept and name of “Labor Day” were born. When New York’s CLU resolved to do it annually, barons and bosses damn near swallowed their $2 cigars at such effrontery and tried to forbid it; editorialists decried it as rank ingratitude to the “job creators” of the day; and the establishment’s politicians warned that labor’s show of strength was anarchy on parade. But workers had found their voice and a measure of class-consciousness in a day to focus the public on their cause, and unions quickly spread the idea to other cities across the country. By the time Grover Cleveland finally sanctioned the federal holiday, 23 states had already set aside September’s first Monday as Labor’s own day.
It’s easy to ridicule what Labor Day has now become for many of us: just a day off to go golfing, take a swim, watch a ballgame, crank up the grill and do some 12-ounce elbow bends. Oh, yeah – and also hit the malls for the sales. (What irony – labor’s day has been turned into a corporate Shop-a-Palooza by megachains and big box stores, requiring millions of low-wage retail employees to put in a full shift on what’s supposed to be their day.)
Ridicule only leads to debilitating cynicism and surrender – the exact opposite of the spirit that created Labor Day and exactly the defeatism that the corporate order thrives on. So rather than sinking into cynicism, let’s notice that: 1.) our modern-day George Pullmans and Grover Clevelands have created a new Gilded Age of gross inequities and worker exploitation, and 2.) that this is sparking a rising new rebelliousness among all sorts of workers.
Grassroots movements in the US have come alive with organizing campaigns to reverse the rampant inequities and abuses being perpetuated by the plutocratic powers: Fast-food workers and the “Fight for $15,” organizing drives by adjunct college professors, Moral Monday, a Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service, OURWalmart, United Workers Congress and grassroots opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Such uprisings now exist in practically every zip code – from Silicon Valley to most college campuses, from day laborers gathered at your local Home Depot to nannies in the homes of the rich. And new groups are popping up regularly, as unorganized, maltreated people not only get fed up, but also see others standing up, getting organized and showing the way. Moreover, with the 1-percenters grabbing ever more for themselves, the US political zeitgeist is shifting against the grabbers and for the populist rebels.
Indeed, the spirit of Matthew Maguire’s Labor Day is spreading again across our country. On Labor Day 2015, let’s take heart in this rising rebelliousness, join the parade and take part in lifting our society closer to the United States’ highest democratic ideals.
Note: An expanded version of this piece will appear in an upcoming issue of the Hightower Lowdown.