Labor Day: Remembering, Revising, and Reclaiming the Holiday

By Ben Prostine

Forget the mattress and appliance sales. Forget the end of summer and the gloomy return to school in a plague year. Forget whatever bargains Amazon may offer and let Jeff Bezos and his fellow corporate looters go into exile on the moon. Here is a day to lean and loaf and ponder that word that consumes so much of our lives: work. 

Labor Day is a U.S. national holiday which, under the presidency of Grover Cleveland, entered the walls of officialdom in 1894. Cleveland signed the order, but this was no top-down holiday bestowed upon the workers by a gracious ruling class. Labor Day began on the streets a dozen years before as socialists, the Knights of Labor and other trade organizations marched in New York for the eight-hour day, safer working conditions, higher pay, and a labor holiday. The gospel of a day for labor spread and by the end of the decade, a number of cities and states officially recognized the first Monday of September as a workers’ holiday. 

Cleveland’s federal blessing of the day was a tactical move to appease labor in an election year. But to many, Cleveland had already revealed his true colors: In response to the Pullman railroad strike, Cleveland called in the National Guard, whose violent suppression of the strike would lead to the death of thirty workers (the strike’s popular leader and future socialist presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, was also jailed). Cleveland’s use of state violence outraged many in the labor movement; his federal recognition of Labor Day was a small concession and he lost the election in November. 

Labor Day shares a few traits with its wilder international cousin, May Day. Both arose out of struggles for the eight-hour day and May Day would have its own story involving the state-sanctioned murder of workers (the Haymarket martyrs executed in Chicago in 1887). But unlike the Labor Day of the present, with its delirium of stars and stripes and discounts, May Day is a globe spanning, border crossing day of workers’ solidarity, still summoning the spirit of street marches, chants, and demonstrations. The U.S. officially recognizes May 1 – not as a labor holiday like more than sixty countries around the world – but as the white washed Law Day. Declared in the early years of Cold War paranoia, Law Day was codified as a “special day” to reaffirm loyalties to the United States and celebrate the “cultivation of the respect for law” (when Law Day was written into existence by general-turned-president Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. “law” also included the racist, blood soaked laws of the Jim Crow South. Whose law? Whose order?).  

Labor Day no longer means a flurry of union flags and street marches, workers’ strikes, picnics, songs, and kegs. And labor itself is in another world from that of the fin de siècle. The days when factories and fields employed the masses and produced the gilded age gluts of wealth for capital are no more. Profit has moved out of production and into the spheres of finance. Generations of automation mean more and more productive work is done by ghosts.  When Labor Day was put on the books in 1894, the largest work force was still on the farm; now the U.S. has more people in prison than farmers on the land, and prisons, along with the military-industrial complex, are two “job programs” the state continues to endow.  

Indeed, the tectonics of work have profoundly shifted over the last century. Today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the largest labor sectors include office and administrative support, health care, sales, food prep and serving, transportation and logistics.  The 40 (or more) hour work week, as waged or salaried workers, nearly every week of the year, is understood by many as “the way it is,” rather than a historic fact or discipline, a compulsion in a world dominated by the creed of endless growth. Centuries ago, former English peasants – dispossessed of the common lands and forced to support themselves by selling their labor – would refer to this new form of work as “wage slavery.” (At the same time, U.S. wealth was beginning to amass by means of stolen land and enslaved African-American labor). Furthermore, women, who violently lost out in the transition to industrial wage labor and what William Blake called the “dark Satanic mills,” would lead revolts to reclaim common lands and the subsistence they provided. 

Our society is not like the one envisioned by Ursula Le Guin in the novel The Dispossessed, where the language of the Anarresti uses the same word for “work” and “play.” Nor does our society truly reckon with the unpaid labor that has and continues to keep the world from totally collapsing, what feminists like Sylvia Federici refer to as “reproductive labor,” that is, the necessary domestic work mostly performed throughout history by women. 

But history is always full of cracks and interstices, places where different possibilities suggest themselves. In the 1880s, as workers’ movements preached the eight-hour day, Paul Lafargue – studying the work habits of pre-industrial societies and keenly aware that the crises of capitalism were a consequence of over-production – advocated a three-hour work day. As he wrote in The Right to Be Lazy, his satirical scorching of the dogma of work, “A strange delusion possesses the working class… This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny.” And now, with centuries of ecological wrecking economic ventures behind us, industrial work threatens to exhaust the “vital forces” of the earth itself. 

The modest demands of the late 19th century labor movement –  “8 hours for work. 8 hours for rest. 8 hours for what we will” – may fall flat in the alienating work regimes of today. There is the work getting ready for work, the work to get to work, the work after work, the emotional work dealing with work, the health issues that accompany work, the nightmares and dreams of work. For many, the time “for rest” and “what we will” is far off in the spheres of elsewhere. 

If the experience of work is profoundly different from what it was only a few generations ago, what will it be by mid-century, or even the end of the century if we make it over the hills of capital’s disasters? Automation will continue to lop off jobs by the thousand and, as we have learned this year, global pandemics can profoundly alter labor and make unemployment run off the charts. Furthermore, ecological devastation and climate crisis will no doubt change the rules of the game, if not the game itself. A shift from production for profit to production for necessity may no longer be the revolutionary hope it once was, but an unavoidable terminus (but under what circumstances?). 

As the US Department of Labor puts it, Labor Day is a day to recognize “the contribution workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country” (the underside of that contribution to national wealth, however, is absent: robbed wages, massive inequality, and an abundance of precarious and meaningless jobs). As the pandemic continues to spread, we can also recognize how essential the workers who will still be laboring on Labor Day really are – health care workers, truck drivers, warehouse, farm and grocery laborers, etc. – compared to the chaos-sowing “non-essential” work of the ones in the White House (our “adults in the room”). 

And Labor Day, like May Day, could also be a day to remember the dead – the Pullman strikers killed by the National Guard and all those generations of workers – paid, unpaid, enslaved – that have made the world we live in today. This is no day for slave owners and conquistadors, or fraudulent neo-fascist real estate tycoons. 

And this Labor Day occurs only days after the death of David Graeber. Graeber was an anthropologist and activist who participated in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, and who investigated a new soul-sucking phenomenon of work he referred to as “bullshit jobs.” “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world,” Graeber wrote in The Utopia of Rules, “is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” 

Here’s to reclaiming Labor Day and envisioning an entirely different meaning of labor. Our lives depend on it.

Top image shows an 1882 Labor Day parade in New York. Among the signs held by the participants are ones that say “Pay No Rent,” “Labor Creates All Wealth,” “Abolish Convict Labor” and “8 Hours to Constitute a Days Work.” 

Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

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