Labor Day History

This transcript from the PBS NewsHour does not mince words when it comes to the origins of today’s American holiday:

The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland’s harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation’s workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland’s desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.

Hmmm, well actually 1896 was the election year, but nevermind that. Cleveland did in fact dispatch 10,000 federal troops in response to the 1894 Pullman strike. Interesting to note, then, how the US Department of Labor portrays that period and the origins of Labor Day:

“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

I find this quote ironic for two reasons. First, it plays down the fact that conflict seems to be the reason that the holiday was born, and second, this is quote is by one of the most influential pro-labor oganizers in American history, Samuel Gompers. I think Gompers was more professing his perferred vision of how the holiday should be celebrated, rather than where it came from.

In fact, there is an important lesson in this story that might be obscured completely if we do not consider the nature of the conflict and how it was resolved. The Voice of America points out that Cleveland justified the use of federal troops against American citizens with a loophole in the law:

America’s constitution says federal troops cannot be sent to a state unless the state government asks for them. And no state government had asked for them.

President Cleveland met with his cabinet to discuss the railroad companies’ request. They finally agreed to send federal troops to Chicago — where the strike had started — to enforce federal postal laws. The troops would protect trains carrying mail.

Imagine if President Bush sent troops into New Orleans in order to ensure the mail was delivered on time? And so I suspect that the backlash against the President’s interpretation of the Constitution and the use of federal troops for domestic peacekeeping is what built public momentum and support for the laborers to a point where Labor Day was born.

Incidentally, Cleveland was also the President who put America onto the gold standard, referred to by some as the “yellow brick road”. For some reason people later changed Dorothy’s footwear to ruby, but originally she had silver slippers that could take her back to reality. Alas, that’s a story for another day…

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