The secret history of Labor Day

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September 3, 2012 by SCNCC

Madison-based labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki wishes us all Happy Contempt for Labor Day:

Labor Day, like most of our national holidays, has lost its meaning and represents the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to be. A day to celebrate American workers is now mostly just another excuse for retailers to hold a “sale” of Chinese-made goods.

At least some workers lucky enough to have jobs get a Monday off—with or without pay—but few really observe the holiday as intended. Worse, far too many are cheerleading attacks on workers, unions, jobs and our standard of living. The Tea Party—the corporate elites’ blue-collar sycophants —would choke on their picnic potato salad if told the truth: Labor Day was union made.

New York City, September 5, 1882: The New York Central Labor Union organized the first Labor Day as a show of strength of its growing movement. Ten thousand workers marched from City Hall to Union Square to demand improved wages and working conditions. Twelve years later a strike by workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois sparked a nationwide uprising. Protesting slashed wages and raised rents in Pullman’s company town, strikers had joined the fledgling American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, which launched a national boycott of Pullman cars. Workers throughout the country, suffering from similar deprivation, rioted and burned rail cars.

President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, dispatched 12,000 soldiers to Illinois, becoming the first president to deploy federal troops to crush labor. Debs was arrested and jailed. To appease an angry working class, Congress unanimously passed legislation to create Labor Day. Cleveland signed the law six days after his army busted the strike.

The meaning of other holidays has also escaped our rightwing brethren. At Christmas they disregard Christ’s teachings of humility, sacrifice and compassion while attending mega-churches where preachers in $1000 suits extol the virtues of prosperity theology and denounce “socialist” healthcare for the poor and sick. They watch old reruns of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” yet ignore the message of Christian charity toward the impoverished. Instead they revere the Scrooges who get rich destroying jobs. They even call them job creators and give them tax breaks.

On Martin Luther King Day, King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech advocating justice, jobs and peace is a faint echo drowned out by the Fox/Limbaugh 24/7 screed machine. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker’s annual address has become a mockery of King’s murder defending public workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain.

Every July 4th a celebration of our independence from a distant dictator king sees another year of subordination in the workplace. Without a union, there’s no Bill of Rights at work: no freedom of speech or the press; no right to peaceably assemble or petition for redress of grievances; no equality or due process. Governor Walker calls these rights “expensive entitlements.”

In 1882, Labor Day was a worker rebellion against Robber Barons. Over the next 80 years, it spawned movements to end child labor, win voting rights for women and blacks, legalize unions and build a flourishing middle class. Today average working folks are conned into coddling corporate overlords who exploit our children, disenfranchise voters, bust unions and tank our entire economy.

So, as Tea Partiers fire up their grills from China, throw on some brats made by low-wage immigrant meatpackers, and complain about government taking away their “freedoms,” they can guzzle some beer, most of which is still union made, safe in the knowledge that, if they win in November, they just might be able to bust those unions next year.

Happy Contempt for Labor Day.

This piece first appeared at

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