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Our Labor Day holiday is more relevant than ever; Here’s why

There are some holidays which are at the forefront of everybody’s mind - celebrations where we’re all familiar with the rituals and the customs of the ceremonies. Sometimes this is due to how much cultural significance they have, or how long we’ve been celebrating them for; like Halloween, a holiday which has existed in Europe for hundreds and hundreds of years. When it comes to other holidays then it's down to the fact that they might hold some kind of spiritual or religious significance, like Hanukkah or Christmas.

But there is another type of holiday; the type of holiday where no one really knows why they’ve got the day off work, but they shrug off the mystery and lay back to enjoy. One of the lesser-known holidays in the United States is the Labor Day holiday. Yes, every September we celebrate this holiday and usually get a day off for it … and yet if you to ask your average chump just exactly what the whole fiasco was all about then they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. They’d mutter something vague about unions and then shuffle off. So what exactly is the importance or Labor Day? When was it invented, and for what purpose? Most prudent of all is this question: should we be taking it more seriously?

A flag showing an industrial worker pumping their first, set against the background of a shining sun.

Labor Day is considered to be the official end of summer in the United States, but it actually finds its origins in the 19th century and was the invention of trade unionists. In September of the year 1882, a worker’s union with the grandiose name of “The Knights of Labour”, made the decision to stage a publicity-geared gala.

The group, which campaigned and negotiated with factory owners to promote an eight-hour work day and establish workers’ rights, convened together in the ninth month in New York City, and organised a large parade for workers and their families in Manhattan. The surprising success of this secular celebration prompted other states to propose adopting their own parade on the first Monday of month. In 1887, the state of Oregon became the first to make Labor Day an official public holiday. But it wasn’t until tragedy struck that it became an official public holiday.

Black and white photograph showing a crowd 19th century workers leaving a factory via the main gates.

In 1894 the Pullman Strike occurred, and the initial protests soon escalated, after 4,000 factory employees of the Pullman Company in Chicago began striking in response to a wage reduction. The factory workers were forced to live within an artificial community entirely geared towards production; industrialist George Pullman designed the factory town ostensibly as a model community, but a number of harsh rules made it unbearable for the factory workers who lived there. There was no democratic process within the town of Pullman, excessive water and gas rates, and a refusal by the company to allow workers to purchase homes elsewhere.

The strike in Illinois soon captured the public’s imagination, and soon the strikes had gone nationwide. Violence erupted across Americans railroads and boxcars, and many people were killed or else badly injured. Once the strikes had dissolved, President Grover Cleveland hoped that, by instigating a nationwide Labor Day celebration, it would placate disgruntled plebs and repair his administration’s reputation, as well as halt the rise of many socialist movements. So there you have it; turns out that the whole reason we have a celebration in the first place is because a bunch of guys from the age of cravats and steam trains got ticked off about their paycheque. Who knew?

Black and white photograph of eleven members of the Knights Of Labour, holding tools such as wrenches and hammers.

That’s fine and dandy for all the history buffs out there, but it begs the question: what relevance does this so-called holiday have in the modern world? How important is it really in 2017? Is it more than just a day of barbecues, picnics, and a bittersweet tribute to the summer-that-was?

Back in the 19th century, when the Western world was experiencing an unprecedented economic boom as a result of the factory-driven mass production brought about by the industrial revolution, it was easy for people to look around and see the fruits of their own industry; technological developments and the mobilisation of the working classes meant that the landscape had literally transformed. Cities were huge and sprawling, trains and boats were mechanised, and whole suburbs were springing up on the outskirts of the metropolis to accommodate the swelling ranks of labourers. Nowadays, when we’re still feeling the effects of the 2008 housing crisis and resulting economic crash, it can be hard to muster any enthusiasm for the modern economy, or the results of all our hard work. It’s a pretty major buzzkill when most economists are still talking like the apocalypse is due any minute now.

Cartoon of a businessman and businesswomen, standing on a pile of coins. The man's pile of coins is higher than the woman's.

And yet those same issues which the Knights of Labour campaigned for have never been more relevant: they championed fair pay and an eight-hour work day, two necessary issues which seem to have been neglected over a century hence. A recent study conducted by economic ThinkTank, The Washington Centre for Equitable Growth, found that nearly 30% of management and legal workers claim to be working more than 45 hours per week on average, as well as 20% of those in the farming, fishing and forestry industries.

The report concluded, “working excessive hours can be detrimental to families, businesses, and the U.S. economy. While there are federal laws that govern work hours, these legal protections have slowly eroded, and some Americans are putting in more time at work than ever before. What's more, the United States has seen a polarisation in working time, meaning that some segments of the labor market have seen a rise in work hours and others are working much less.” Clearly, overwork is as much of a hot-button topic in the 21st century as it was in the 19th, which means that we should fight just as hard as our ancestors to protect our free time.

Black and white photograph of three women laughing while staging a socialist union demonstration.

On the issue of fair wages … well, wouldn’t we all like to be paid a little more? I know I would. But ultimately, one thing in particular has changed the way we work: women. Since the 1890s millions of women have entered the workforce, and now contribute just as many hours and as much effort as their male colleagues. Yet when the issue of salaries is raised nowadays, the biggest controversy is the wage gap.

Time and time again we have seen evidence, not just in America but across the world, of women being paid significantly less than men even though they perform the same job. The wage gap is more glaring than ever; so isn’t our struggle for equality a part of those same values of fairness and egalitarianism that the knights first stood up for?

It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of these holidays, but the truth is that they’re still politically and culturally significant, particularly now when global corporations hold more and more power to curtail worker’s rights. Maybe we should focus a little bit more on promoting the true meaning of this event, and showing the workforce that there’s more to this occasion than grilled hot dogs and a token parade.

  • Aug
  • 46 shares
  • Callum Henderson