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57 Days: Free Labor

Labor Day has a way of sneaking up on me. The sudden end point of lazy summer routines. Echoes of childhood. Butterflies in my stomach realizing school starts the next day. Am I ready? Do I have enough notebooks? What will I wear? Will any friends be in my classes? On my school bus route? Will the teachers be nice or harsh?

As an adult, I have carried these ideas with me. Labor Day as fresh start; as the end of vacations and the start of a busy few months until the winter holidays. When I had an office job — and even when I rented a desk at a coworking space — I would make an effort to dress sharper the day after Labor Day than I had in July and August to mark the occasion. An earnest solemnity for the work ahead.

The holiday itself went unremarked. After a long string of unstructured days, why celebrate the last of them? I’m sure my family had picnics on Labor Day weekend in some of those years. We had many July and August birthday celebrations, including the July 4th birthday of Uncle Sam. Perhaps we were done with celebrations by the time Labor Day came around. I recall a picnic or two with my dad’s coworkers from the power plant during the summer, too. Were these Labor picnics celebrating worker solidarity, descendants of the tradition established at the first 1882 Labor Day in New York City? Beer, bratwurst, volleyball on a remote rural property. No volleyball at the 1882 picnic, though (it was invented seven years later).

I am now reading Heather Cox Richardson’s West From Appomattox, which explores the culture wars following the Civil War as the northern system of free labor — the idea that workers were free to work under terms they agreed to with their employer — struggled to take hold in the south and west. Wealthy landowners in the south opposed negotiating terms with their black workers and instead worked to recreate the antebellum (literally “pre-war”) slave labor system through sharecropping arrangements and later in Jim Crow laws.

Labor Day is a celebration of the free labor movement and the organization of workers into trade unions that was its logical outgrowth. At least 30 states had made Labor Day an official holiday in the tradition of 1882’s NYC parade and picnic by the time Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland signed the law making it a Federal holiday in 1894. There were 44 states at the time. I couldn’t find a list of the 14 holdout states, but given the history of the free labor movement, I’m guessing it would be a safe bet to start with the secessionist states in the south and work your way towards the western territories where settlers had attempted to expand slavery.

Here is a depiction of the first Labor Day parade. I’ve highlighted some incredible details.

Source: Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper,
 September 16, 1882 via Wikimedia Commons

How many of these signs have you seen still being carried today, at Black Lives Matter protests? At Occupy camps in 2011?

LABOR CREATES ALL WEALTH

ALL MEN ARE BORN EQUAL

8 HOURS TO CONSTITUTE A DAYS WORK

THE TRUE REMEDY IS ORGANIZATION & THE BALLOT

LABOR PAYS ALL TAXES

AGITATE EDUCATE ORGANIZE

PAY NO RENT

VOTE THE LABOR TICKET

ABOLISH CONVICT LABOR

WHO STOLE THE TENEMENT HOUSE REFORM BILL

I wonder why this image isn’t taught in school, isn’t as well-known as the history of Thanksgiving, the fourth of July, and other secular U.S. holidays?