Out of the major national holidays Labor Day gets the prize for muddled meaning. Maybe our wistful good-byes to summer get in the way, but not many folks will pause to consider why we have a national day-off to celebrate labor. Too many of the few that do think about it will fall into two camps that generally despise each other.
The U.S. Department of Labor tells us that Labor Day “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” The DOL doesn’t tell us that Labor Day was rushed through Congress by President Grover Cleveland to appease America’s labor movement a mere six days after his controversial use of federal troops forcibly ended the bloody Pullman strike that paralyzed rail traffic, and thus the country, during the summer of 1894.
Cleveland’s gesture didn’t work for him—his Democratic party was slaughtered in the 1894 midterm election—or help the labor movement that much either. Many needed reforms, such as reasonable working hours and safe working conditions, now taken for granted would not be enacted for decades--decades that would include the infamous Triangle Factory fire and Colorado’s own Ludlow Massacre.
So maybe a lesson in working for change is among Labor Day’s messages to modern America. Change is slow and uneven, so take a long view. We seem to need a crisis, or even crises, to move change along, so don’t waste an opportunity when it presents itself. Change is ongoing process, so don’t be disheartened when we don’t get it right.
Crisis and change are on many minds now. Enjoy your day off.
I’ll close with my own farewell to summer: some favorite photographs from the last 3 months.