How do you celebrate Labor Day? Wait - you celebrate Labor Day?

1978 International Ladies Garment Workers Union ad

I remember sitting in music class at Central School in Bedford, Ohio in the 70’s  and being indoctrinated with this song – I can still sing it from memory.  In the evenings,  the commercial interrupted episodes of All in the Family and Welcome Back Kotter.  Not that I minded.  My dad worked for the phone company and was represented by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) union. Nearly every family we knew was in the union. The union contract the CWA negotiated has taken very good care of my father in his retirement

For what it’s worth, we also sang overtly Christian songs in that school.  Songs that would today cause ACLU-types to curl up in the fetal position and suck their thumbs.  There was one boy in my class who was a Jehovah’s Witness.  He was not allowed to sing the Christmas songs, participate in holiday celebrations or eat the birthday cupcakes the mothers sent to class.  I don’t remember if his religion forbid him to sing the union solidarity pep rally songs or not.   

As we look to the upcoming Labor Day holiday,  I have to wonder what it is we are celebrating and whether conservatives should be celebrating at all.  

The Department of Labor offers this sanitized little revisionist-history description of the evolution of the holiday:

“The Labor Day holiday is interesting because it evolved over a period of years. In 19th century America, there was already a tradition of having parades, picnics and various other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. But most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882…. 

“…The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.” 

“After that major event in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers.” [emphasis added]

Doesn’t that sound like fun for the whole family?  What’s not to love about it? But Tedd Watts, in his book The First Labor Day Parade says it was not quite such a festive affair:

“Those first parades were really protest rallies for the adoption of the 8-hour day, rather than the, often tame civic events they have evolved into. Participants had to give up a day’s pay in order to march. The New York City Central Labor Union (CLU) even levied a fine on non-participants!” 

“In 1882, the New York City CLU was a lodge of the still-secret Knights of Labor, with a progressive tailor, Robert Blissert at its head. His right-hand man and Secretary of the CLU was Mathew Maguire, a machinist. The parade was timed to coincide with a national Knights of Labor conference being held in New York. This accounts for the presence of almost the entire K of L leadership on the reviewing stand. But their affiliation with labor was masked for the reporters who covered the parade. Grand Master Workman Terrence Powderley, for example, was introduced as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which he, in fact, was.”  

Union workers threatened with fines if they didn’t show up for protests?  Secretive union bosses? Hoodwinking the media?  These folks have been at this for a really long time!

Also left out of the Department of Labor’s history of Labor Day is the reason it’s a federal holiday.  President Grover Cleveland, who had a contentious relationship with the unions due to the violent Haymaker Riot and the Pullman strike, needed to find ways to curry their favor in order to win re-election.  In addition to creating the Department of Labor,  just six days after the Pullman strike Cleveland rushed legislation through Congress designating the first Monday in September as Labor day.  It was too little, too late and Cleveland ultimately lost his re-election bid.   

American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers described the purpose of Labor Day in the Washington Post on September 2, 1894 – the first national Labor Day celebration:

“Labor Day will this year be celebrated with unwonted vim and enthusiasm. All over the land organized workingmen are making ready to celebrate their holiday. There will be open-air demonstrations, speech-making, and a display of interest never equaled, probably since Labor Day was instituted.” [emphasis added]

Clearly, from the very beginning, this was a holiday dedicated to celebrating and honoring union workers

President Obama had this to say in his Labor Day Proclamation (yes, I know he forgot Easter, but you didn’t think he’d forget Labor Union Day, did you?):

“The right to organize and collectively bargain is a fundamental American value. Since its beginnings in our country, organized labor has raised our living standards and built our middle class. It is the reason we have a minimum wage, weekends away from work to rest and spend time with family, and basic protections in our workplaces. 

“Many Americans today are given opportunities because their parents and grandparents fought for these basic rights and values. The principles upheld by the honorable laborers of generations past and their unions continue to fuel the growth of our economy and a strong middle class. 

“This year has seen a vigorous fight to protect these rights and values, and on this Labor Day, we reaffirm that collective bargaining is a cornerstone of the American dream. From public employees — including teachers, firefighters, police, and others who perform public services — to workers in private industries, these men and women hold the power of our Nation in their hands.”

Are you feeling the solidarity yet?  

I’ve always wondered why atheists who pontificate about the evils of Christmas displays and blather on and on about religion in the public square don’t seem to mind taking the day off work for Christmas and Easter.  It always seemed rather hypocritical to me.  To be consistent, I thought, they should be suing their employers to force them to be allowed to work instead of taking advantage of the paid day off for a religious holiday.  

I wonder if we, as conservatives are demonstrating a little hypocrisy ourselves by “celebrating” labor unions with President Obama and Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO.  I suppose the argument can be made that we are celebrating what the unions were historically and the good that they accomplished in their early days. But at this point, most of us here realize that the unions are a huge contributor to the bankrupting of our country. It’s nothing to celebrate.

Of course, unless you’re self-employed, you probably don’t have a choice about whether or not to go in to work on Monday.  If you’re a student, the doors will be locked and no one will be there to teach you….

….unless you go to Hillsdale College.  That’s right…possibly the only school in the country that recognizes the significance of Labor Day will be open for business and students will be learning about the Constitution, The Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers and the dangers of Progessivism.   My son is blessed to be a sophomore there and his classes on Monday will include American Foreign Policy, History of Theater, Western Religions, and Computer Programming. 

Perhaps while you’re enjoying your family time and stretching out the last few days of the summer,  you can take a cue from Dr. Arnn at Hillsdale College and take a little time to defend liberty this weekend.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make a donation to Hillsdale College (shameless begging – my kid is there on scholarship because of some generous donors)
  • Visit the Building a Better Ohio website and learn about Ohio’s common-sense union reforms.  The unions managed to get a measure on the November ballot to repeal the entire reform bill and the unions are pouring millions into the repeal effort.  They ran their first TV ad today featuring – of course – a firefighter. Check out the website and see how you can help. 
  • Sit down and write a letter to the editor (or three) about a candidate or an issue that matters to you. It doesn’t take much time and it can pay huge dividends. 
  • Find out which organizations in your area are hosting Constitution Day celebrations on  September 17th and make plans to attend or even volunteer.

I’m planning to spend some time on Labor Day working on plans and strategies for local GOP candidates.  How about you?