Monday, September 7, 2015

The Radical Roots of Labor Day

Over at Talking Points Memo, Ben Railton of Fitchburg State University, sheds some light on the holiday that we are celebrating today.

A taste:

It’s become commonplace to complain about how the true meanings of our American holidays have been forgotten in favor of weekend sales, cookouts and family gatherings. But the problem is particularly clear when it comes to Labor Day. While holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July still feature prominent collective and media reminders of their historical and cultural significance alongside the barbeques and beach trips, Labor Day has become almost entirely divorced from its origins and associated instead with one last burst of summer fun before the fall and new school year commence in earnest....


The question of who is responsible for the creation of a holiday devoted to labor remains in some dispute. For many years it was attributed to Peter McGuire, a carpenter who became a national labor leader in the 1880s; recently historians have argued instead for Matthew Maguire, a machinist and leader of the New York Central Labor Union (CLU).

We do know that the holiday originated in the early 1880s, and the first parade was organized in New York by the CLU and the national union the Knights of Labor on September 5, 1882. In their inclusion of every type of worker, including unskilled and immigrant workers (the latter a particularly radical position in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and significant anti-immigrant trends in the labor movement), the Knights embodied one element of late 19th century labor radicalism, and their parades reflected this identity.

Read the rest here.  Or read Heath Carter's piece at the Oxford University Press blog.