Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The day after

Labor Day is not even a few hours over and I am back at the keyboard killing time while week number two of jury duty begins. Labor Day is an unusual holiday. Few people, if any, can explain its meaning or why we celebrate it. It is not like Memorial Day, Veterans Day or even Thanksgiving, all of which we have specific knowledge. Labor Day is an amorphous holiday that celebrates the workingman, but the reasons why it exists, other than a convenient way to signal an end to summer, is unknown. Let me state for the record that Labor Day is a federal holiday, but the reason it is celebrated in this country is directly due to earlier celebrations held in our federal neighbor to the north, Canada. The Canadian labor movement of the 1870's grew out of a desire for a nine-hour workday and other demands in Toronto. It eventually spilled over into other provinces of Canada, resulting in annual parades and festivals to celebrate the passage of legislation preferential to them. It was in 1882 that American labor organizer Peter J. McGuire witnessed one of these festivals in Toronto and decided it would be a great import to the United States and help shore up his efforts for promoting labor interests. The first Labor Day festivities were held in New York City on September 5 of that year. Through the intervening years other cities and states followed suit, but it wasn't until 1894 that President Grover Cleveland helped rush legislation designating Labor Day as a federal holiday in the hope it would help appease labor interests following the contentious Pullman Strike in which 250,000 workers in 27 different states were involved. That strike led by Eugene V. Debs and his American Railway Union created animus between the railroads and striking workers, eventually causing Cleveland to send federal troops to Illinois to break it up. His response to the crisis eventually cost him a possible third term as president and led Debs to prison, where he began reading the works of Karl Marx. Debs later emerged as the leading socialist of his day. All of this began in one way or another as an outgrowth of a Canadian labor movement. Stranger things have happened in American history and I guess other countries can give credit to us for some of their celebrations. In the meantime we won't celebrate another national holiday until Columbus Day in October. I guess we'll look into that one next month when I won't have jury duty (hopefully) and try to figure out why we remember an Italian captain who sailed for Spain and somehow missed most of the landmass of North America in his voyages to the New World.

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