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Labor Day's Origins

William Harris Explains the Origins of Labor Day

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A guest feature, by William Harris, on the background to a holiday celebrated in the U.S. as the end of summer.
If there are two pin-points to locate the summer season in the US, they are the Fourth of July, the origins of which we know since school days, and Labor Day about which we seem to know almost nothing. My first surprise with the books this rainy morning is that in England "Labour Day" is still the First of May, celebrating along with most of the world this May day of celebration. On the one hand this is the day set aside by the Second Socialist International in l889 to commemorate Labor, and is retained as such by all former Communist countries and most socialist states as well. But in England this was superimposed on an ancient May Day which can be traced back to Roman times when the springtime holiday of Flora ranged from April 28 to May 3. If March First was the start of the Roman year and the day to begin planting, then May First was the time of the blossoms which indicated that everything had been done right, a tribute to the agricultural labor of the past two months. This is suspiciously near to modern Easter, at April 23 in the year 2000, formerly a lunar computation and it may have come from India and Egypt the same date as May Day. May Day in England may have a double root after all.

Labor Day in the United States, Canada and Australia is quite different, tracing its origins back to the "Noble Order of the Knights of Labor in America," an organization which was founded in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day l869 through the efforts of Uriah S. Stephens and six associates, all garment cutters. This was started as a trade union but soon changed into a broad spectrum social and philanthropic organization under the guidance of Stephens who was himself a Mason and fostered a Mason-like direction. A secret ritual was initiated, of which no copy has been was found in writing, a first local assembly was called in l773 and that same year a second assembly of ship carpenters and caulkers employed in Cramp's shipyard in Philadelphia was called. From that point membership grew, a new constitution was adopted in l882 even admitting women members, with a membership of near a million workers in the mid l880's. This was the high-water mark, by l900 other Unions were in place and the Knights had shrunk to only 130,000.

It was probably the two parades of the Knights in New York City in l882 and l884, when membership was at its peak, that spurred Colorado in l887 to designate the first Monday in September a legal holiday, a date which Congress approved in l894, while in l909 it was approved in all states except North Dakota and Arizona, although in Louisiana it was observed only in New Orleans parish, and in Maryland, Wyoming and New Mexico it could be proclaimed annually by the governor if so wished. Slowly Labor Day became a national holiday, a long weekend of end-summer festivities, with little more than a token tip of the hat to "Labor."

As this last century ended, Unionism with its long and hard-won history in the fight for acceptable working conditions, pay and benefits, was on the decline. A thriving US economy which believes that big business and capital power are the surest advisors in the running of the country, has largely bypassed the massed force of the once-powerful unions. Might it not be suitable for us to pause today to think how far the old union activities have brought us in improving the life of the common man? And we might think soberly for a minute about Labor Day as a memorial to the vanished men and women of the l9th century who gave us the economic base our working men and women enjoy. This is a time to visit distant family, to take vacation trips to resorts, to spend money freely and fully enjoy the prized days of this grand holiday weekend.

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