Belaboring Labor Day

As summer draws to its lazy close, Labor Day seems a most appropriate occasion for loafing. But have you ever asked yourself whom this holiday really honors?

I just don’t get Labor Day. For the most part, Labor Day observance consists of a day off work and a nod toward the unofficial “last day” of summer. But that’s not all.

A column written for Labor Day, for example, often takes one of three approaches: the historical, the Cold War approach, or the philosophical. Briefly, they may be stated as follows:

1) In the historical approach, mention is made of the founders of the American labor movement, of the first Labor Day observances, of incidents such as the Pullman strike. The point to be driven home is that the country's greatness really does depend on the “working man.”

2) A writer taking the Cold War approach stresses that while the idea of Labor Day seems similar to the May Day celebrations in Europe, it's not, really, because the American labor movement has never been avowedly socialist, and certainly not communist. This one has been in decline since the demise of the Soviet Union.

3) What I call the philosophical approach consists of asserting that it is well to remember that "workers" means more than just those who work with their hands. By this standard, it is argued, bankers and managers (and even some writers) also do honest work.

Here’s what Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, had to say about it: “Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”

Or so he says. Labor Day is in fact a creation of the organized labor movement, so it is, actually, a memorial to a particular group: organized labor. And it always has been.

I offer none of the above. I can’t — because I don’t get it. Come on, doesn't it strike you as odd that on a holiday created as a workingman's day off, we expect people — in particular, hard-working service people — to be working?

That’s the anomaly of Labor Day, as I see it: take a look around and notice for whom it really does serve as a holiday.

Union members usually have the day off. No surprise there. But so do their supervisors and managers. And it’s a federal holiday, so federal employees, unionized or not, are off. More often than not, state and local government workers aren’t working either.

But stride on over to McDonald’s and they’ll be open, ready for your business, workers and all. The federally regulated New York Stock Exchange isn’t open on Labor Day, nor are banks or law firms — but McDonald’s is, and 7-11 is, and so is Disney World.

Imagine that: the people at theme parks and restaurants and gas stations aren’t “workers,” then, in the historic Labor Day sense, or perhaps aren’t examples of “the American working man.” But traders on the New York Stock Exchange are, and so are Harvard Law graduates. So who’s a worker?

See why I don’t get it?

Isn’t it the case that the number of unionized workers in the US is declining, both in absolute and in relative terms? If so, isn’t Labor Day becoming no more than a way of celebrating a particular minority — sort of like Asian and Pacific Islander Month, or Black History Month? Are there emergency plans in place for when the last such minority job is gone?

Bet you’re glad I thought to ask.

Understand, though, that if I see the glass as half-empty, I do realize that it’s also half-full: after all, politicians and bureaucrats at all levels are also taking the day off. A remark attributed both to Mark Twain and to a Judge Gideon Tucker reminds us that “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” Their day off, then, is all to the common good. True, said politicians are often out and about, gasifying about the contributions of the American worker and in general making public pests of themselves. But at least they’re not in session, voting more Alien and Sedition Acts or Fugitive Slave Acts or Americans with Disabilities Acts into law. By that standard, at least, Labor Day is as worthy as any other holiday, inasmuch as it affords temporary respite to all who do actual work and submit to actual taxes.

We should, I think, for that reason also embrace Mother’s Day as a federal holiday. And all twelve days of Christmas. And Cinco de Mayo. And Florida’s Gasparilla Day.

And Kwanzaa.

What I really don’t get about Labor Day, though, is how its actual observance, by actual working people, is thought to somehow not be good enough by those who have chosen to labor in the vineyards of punditry or politics. Labor Day is the third of the three American summer holidays, after Memorial Day and Independence Day, and is marked in much the same way: backyard grilling, beer drinking, playing games, ignoring our “leaders.”

Speaking of grilling: has it ever crossed your mind that much of what Americans do for recreation resembles work? We restore classic automobiles and antique radios. We brew beer. We learn to cook exotic dishes, or to prepare familiar dishes in exotic ways. We learn to play the classical guitar. We quilt and sew, write computer programs, and design and build radios because we like doing such things.

And we work at those avocations, don't we? We know that our time in the kitchen won’t make us another Emeril Lagasse, our time in the garage won’t create a Chip Foose career, and our time spent practicing scales won’t transform us into another Christopher Parkening. We don't care. It doesn’t matter because we take pleasure in the process, in the progress, in the labors themselves. And we should.

In Labor Day, then, we have a holiday where it seems sensible and just that we should forget its actual origins, and forget, too, whatever “meaning” is ascribed to it by pundits and public speakers, and concentrate on its usual observance: relaxing, watching TV if there's anything we care to see there, grilling some steaks and downing some beer and enjoying the company of friends and family. There’s always more work to go back to, whether it’s at the office or the shop, or work of your own making — because there are always more problems to solve.

And that’s just as it should be, for there's always more to achieve. We celebrate what we've achieved and we celebrate what we'll achieve in the future. Maybe I do get it...

But listening to the pundits and politicians? Sorry, I just don’t get it.

Craig Ceely is a corporate trainer, writer, and humorist in the wilds of west Texas. He claims the three trades are related. His blog, The Anger of Compassion, is updated at least semiannually. There is no truth to the rumor that he is writing an epic poem about commas.

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