A Day of No Labor

Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its meaning.  Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, some would even say Christmas – we now view this as a day off and a long weekend.

Many children associate this 3-day-weekend-holiday with the end of summer. Though some schools start the new year in August, in my part of the country most schools begin actual classes after Labor Day.

American Labor Day was first celebrated on a Tuesday – September 5, 1882 – and was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York as a day of rest for working persons.

The Haymarket Riots (or Haymarket affair or Haymarket massacre) was a demonstration on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. It started out as a rally in support of striking workers. Someone threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting and that resulted in gunfire from the police, the deaths of eight police officers (most from friendly fire) and some civilians. The legal proceedings that followed got international press and eight “anarchists” were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.

There were efforts to use that May date as a holiday but U.S. President Grover Cleveland supported moving the holiday to a September date to avoid associations with the Haymarket riot and the Socialist May Day associations. He signed a bill into law making the September Labor Day observance a federal holiday in 1894.

Most other countries celebrate workers on May first of each year. “May Day” refers to several public holidays but is associated with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups.

Americans don’t really do much to celebrate work or workers today. We have barbecues, backyard blowouts, watch early college football games. And yet, now might be the time we should consider workers. Unemployment is high, businesses are cutting back and there are still battles to raise the minimum wage to a living salary. It’s not a good time for labor unions either. There are lots of demands for concessions by unions on their contracts. Some politicians and corporations are calling for an end to unions and trying to stop new unionization of workers.

America is a work-obsessed culture. Many people are still working this weekend, just as during the worst of the pandemic when workers labeled as “essential” still had to go to their workplace while other workers were able to more safely work from home. Are those essential workers at the top of the salary guide and corporate ladder? No, it’s almost the opposite. Some of the lowest-paid and least respected workers were deemed “essential” in this very limited way.

It seems a shame that this holiday doesn’t have more of a connection to the positive aspects of work and workers and as a time to reflect on how labor is treated in the country.

A Different Kind of Labor Day

Monday is Labor Day but the day has long been seen as a weekend in the United States. It has evolved over the years from a day of rest for working persons, to being viewed as the unofficial end of summer and the start of many schools and colleges.

It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its original meaning. Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, even Christmas – we now view this as extended time off.  In America, this weekend and Labor Day have very little to do with workers and labor.

This year is a different kind of Labor Day weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The unemployment rate was 10% in July and lots of people are not working the way they were last September.

Many K-12 schools and colleges are not reopening normally. Classes are either online or limited with many precautions.

There will be fewer people at the beach and at backyard parties, this weekend and health officials fear that larger gatherings will create a spike in positive virus tests in the weeks to come.

labor day
Image by DavidRockDesign from Pixabay

Unrelated to the pandemic are the many protests and violence occurring in American cities. Coincidentally, the Labor Day holiday began with the Haymarket Riots on May 4, 1886, in Chicago. What began as a rally in support of striking workers escalated with a bomb and gunfire from the police, which resulted in eight deaths.

Most countries outside the U.S. celebrate workers on the first of May. May Day, International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, is still a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups. But in 1894, a bill was signed into law in the U.S. making Labor Day the first Monday of September a federal holiday. The impetus for the date changed was to distance the holiday from the Haymarket riot and socialist May Day activities.

This year the weekend will be a lot less of a “happy” Labor Day and even less of a celebration of workers.



It’s May Day

In medieval England, today would have been a day to gather flowers to “bring in the May.” You’ve heard of the maypole bedecked with garlands?

It’s also the date of Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival. The Gaelic word bealltainn means “May First” and the day was a celebration of the start of summer often accompanied by bonfires. It has seen some revival by neo-pagans.

Shooting back to pre-Christian Rome, it was the time of the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers.

May Day, the first of May, is celebrated with a number of different holidays.

You could celebrate Hawaiian history and culture with Lei Day.

In Minneapolis, there was a big parade and pageant staged by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre that has been going on since 1975.

Many countries celebrate Labor Day on that day, which dates back to the labor movement in the United States more than a hundred years ago.

Back in 1886, unions around the country went on strike. They were protesting to get an eight-hour workday. Many of the strike organizers were communists, socialists and anarchists and so May Day became associated with communism. It was a big national holiday in the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower tried to rebrand the day back during the anti-communist Cold War years into Law Day and Loyalty Day.

The first of May is also a celebration of spring and fertility in places like Egypt and India.

In Germany, May first was the date of a pagan festival that Christians flipped into the feast day of St. Walpurgis. The night before — Walpurgisnacht — is still celebrated in parts of rural Germany as a kind of Valentine’s Day.