Some Ironies of Labor Day

On September’s first Monday we supposedly honor those who labored hard in the past by taking the day off. That alone should suggest something is wrong with the occasion. Normally, when someone has worked an awful lot and you want to show your appreciation, you do so by picking up some of the slack, not slacking off yourself.

More to the point, let us ask: Who takes off Labor Day?

In the commercial sector, plenty of people enjoy the three-day weekend, and there is nothing wrong with that, although we might note that it proves that these jobs are either generally ones that can go undone for another 24 hours, or there are others in the enterprise who take over and do not enjoy the vacation.

Most government employees appear to get the day off—but not many of the ones whose jobs are widely regarded as important, like power line technicians, firefighters, and those dealing with waste and plumbing.

There are plenty of workers for which Labor Day is rarely special at all: cab drivers, waiters and waitresses, food deliverers, doctors, nurses, veterinarians, convenience store clerks, gas station attendants, commercial airline crew, grocers, and so forth. Many of the most important jobs, and many of the hardest jobs, continue on a nearly uninterrupted schedule despite Labor Day. (The same is true of weekends. A popular bumper sticker reads: “The Labor Movement: The folks that gave you the weekend.” Many of the hardest workers, however, rarely get the weekend off, and certainly not the Saturday plus Sunday that are usually meant by that word.)

This is a funny thing to consider, as it means that many of those whose labor truly is valuable as a day-to-day matter—many of whom are blue-collar workers, or those who could most use a break from the tedium of performing their service—are as likely to work on Labor Day as on any other. We depend on these people to be there when we need them, and so they simply can’t take the day off.

Not to put myself in that category, but I’ve never seen the point of taking off Labor Day, except insofar as it’s nice to have a longer weekend once in a while. But this day in particular? It is fun as an end-of-summer ritual. It’s fine to go to festivals and other events that are easier to arrange when a bigger community is all free on the same Monday. But I plan to get a little bit of “work” done today, despite the national guideline that we spend the day resting as many of those with tougher jobs treat it like any other Monday.

And why do we get to have any time off at all? For the most part, because of the huge blessings of mass production that come from capitalism. They are so immense that even many of the large number of unemployed Americans, many of them frustrated by a government-burdened economy, are still able to get along comfortably. There was a time when most people wouldn’t even think of taking a third day off in a week for it would devastate their family’s financial situation. To be free of this hardship is a blessing owed to the market, rather than those we’re normally supposed to thank on Labor Day—government and its union buddies.

Which brings us to the dirty origin of the holiday. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland (one of my favorites, as far as it goes*) wanted to diffuse an incendiary political situation after the labor strike that originated in Chicago and afflicted the whole nation through obstructing the railways. Blacks who saw the unionist strikers as having racist motivations crossed picket lines, and were hired as strikebreakers, adding a racial tint to the violence. Cleveland responded to the boycott of the railroads, which meant a halt of the mail service, by sending in the Army. Over a dozen were killed and many more were wounded. (Cleveland had also imposed martial law in Seattle in response to a strike during his first term.)

It was in this context of the U.S. government’s failure to peacefully deal with violent strikers in a story with no real heroes that we got Labor Day, and so now we fire up the barbecues, rarely giving a single thought to the state violence and labor violence of a bygone era and any modern significance they might have in the state’s power over employment matters, the continuing corruption of unions, and the government’s willingness to use military force against the citizenry.

Cleveland sure knew what he was doing.


* Some might wonder why Cleveland would be among my favorite presidents when I appear somewhat critical of him here. Well, that’s how it is: In the class of reprobates that are U.S. presidents, even the valedictorian is a miscreant.

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