Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)
Labor Day sounds like the name of a holiday that is all about American workers, but most of us simply see it as Monday that gives us a coveted three-day weekend to give summer one last hurray.
It has long been debated whether Labor Day is really a holiday for the working class – or a cheap ploy used by capitalist overlords to make ordinary people believe they are valued before they leave on Tuesday in the expectation that they will be grateful for returning to everyday life there is a single day of rest. Either way, you should celebrate it as if it were a holiday honoring the workers and claim or reclaim it in a way that honors the working class. Hit the beach, prepare for fall, take advantage of the rampant Labor Day sales to save a few dollars – but first let’s learn about the history.
When and how did Labor Day start?
This is the Ministry of Labor says on the holiday: “Labor Day is the first Monday in September and is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers. The holiday has its roots in the late nineteenth century when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity and wellbeing. “
First things first, then. Celebrate the social and economic accomplishments of your work over the past year. You worked hard – especially hard – during a pandemic, a tense election season, an ongoing national reckoning of systemic racism and police brutality, climate change, and your own unique problems. All of this has generated revenue for your company, dutifully checked in to bosses on Slack and email, or otherwise contributed in unimaginable ways. Hell, if you spent even a dollar of your hard-earned cash on a coffee this year, you contributed to your local economy.
Enjoy your big day, even if some criticize the holiday. (Though they make some good points.)
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What is the Labor Day Criticism?
Two years ago, writer and radical organizer Kim Kelly wrote wrote Teen Vogue says, “Labor Day is a Government Scam”. That can be true even if you fire up the barbecue one last time this weekend or if you sleep in a little on Monday. It is not wrong to acknowledge the problems associated with Labor Day or anything else, especially things that are being distributed by the government, be it a single day of seemingly endless work or official statements about our recent departure from Afghanistan. Question everything. It is good practice.
Did then-President Grover Cleveland sign Labor Day law to appeal to working-class voters or quell left-wing differences before the 1896 elections? As Kelly explained, Cleveland wasn’t even looking for re-election, so no one is really sure. There is a dispute over which organizer came up with the idea from the time, but what we do know for sure is that Cleveland has declared the first Monday in September a Workers Holiday.
Kelly also contradicted this Labor Department statement, pointing out that the “Celebration of the Social and Economic Achievements of American Workers” is granted only to American workers who happen to have schedules and work for companies that allow them to work on Mondays at all. The existence of the beach boom and sales we associate with the vacation is proof enough that it’s not for all workers: while you’re on the shore someone has to edit the scores on the boardwalk so you can waste your time on a soft toy to win animal. While you are at a dealership, someone will need to work so you can take the test drive. It’s not really a Workers Day holiday when office workers and CEOs laze around while low-wage workers are still toiling, is it? Think of these people if you are lucky enough to get a three day weekend this year.
Can you still celebrate workers when the holiday is some kind of bill?
You should definitely celebrate Labor Day and Workers Day, yourself! In 2016, New York based teamster Tim Goulet challenged the categorization of the working day as the “boss’s holiday” in the socialist magazine Jacobin.
“Many portray it as a symbolic ‘gift’ from capitalist politicians who wanted a clean May Day that could capture militancy and disperse it into ‘responsible’ channels. In this narrative, Labor Day is referred to as “the holiday of the bosses,” which marks the historic defeat of the working class, “he wrote. “Not only does this misrepresent the course of the day, but it also forces us to move one public holiday forward over the other, as if there wasn’t enough space in the calendar for two days when the workers were celebrated.”
Goulet pointed out that the same radical thinkers who promoted and celebrated the early Labor Days brought us the victories of other hard-won workers like the Eight-Hour Day.
You see, Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882, planned by the Central Labor Union long before Cleveland would officially anchor it. Goulet stated that the roots of the holiday as a worker-organized event were still significant even if the modern version of the first Monday in September went off course. Think of all the holidays that you celebrate. Which, if any, have remained true to their origins? Certainly not Halloween! Certainly not Christmas! Holidays keep evolving, deviating from their intended purpose, and constantly getting caught up in the capitalist whirlpool, but it is the way we celebrate them and the value we personally attach to them that make them special.
What more can we do to celebrate workers?
Every May 1st we celebrate May 1st or International Workers Day. Labor Day, Goulet noted, predated the Haymarket events of 1886 that inspired May Day, but both were and are important to the working class and the history of their people.
We usually think of Labor Day as the end of summer and Memorial Day as the start of the season. Memorial Day is important, of course, but next year you should try to remake summer between May and Labor Days, and then spend the whole season – and all year – celebrating workers and the working class about their history read and find ways to support them and the parts of the movement that really appeal to you.
The labor rights movement looks different today than it did in the 19th century, but it goes on. Activists are now fighting for paid parental leave and paid sick leave. Newsrooms across the country are unionized. Workers in various industries go on strike for better treatment, higher wages and better benefits. Lawyers fight for – and win – an hourly wage of $ 15. Labor Day is for you and Labor Day is for you, but so is every other day of the year. So do some research and do what you can to help.
And don’t forget to relax on Monday if you can. You deserve it, and it’s what the original Labor Day celebrations want, even if the holiday’s history and intentions have gotten mixed up over time.