LABOR DAY: ITS HISTORY AND SIGNIFICANCE

Engraving of T.V. Powderly in profile

By Terence V. Powderly, 1893. Last updated Sept. 7, 2009

 

STUDENTS of history, gropers through the musty records of the past and those who would judge of the future of labor by its history will find little to encourage them in their researches. That they will learn much is true, that they may gather together a store of facts is also true, but find anything to cause them to feel that the labor of past ages was appreciated at its full value they will not.


Until some seven centuries before the coming of Christ men were divided into two classes -- masters and serfs or lords and servants. Men who worked for pay were despised, while those who were the property of others had to content themselves with sufficient to eat, if indeed they always obtained that, and when it was possible to obtain it, clothing enough to keep the exterior covered. It was the right of the master to kill his slave without question from any person or authority. Frequently strong men were put to death for the mere pleasure of assembled guests, and it was no uncommon thing to torture a slave to death while experimenting with poison. When fetes were held in those olden days they were ordered and directed by the masters. Those who took active part, those who made up the rank and file of the merry-makers, were workingmen or slaves. It was not in pleasant anticipation that the toiler looked forward to the gala day, before the dawn of the Christian era, for he became a participant, not for his own amusement or pleasure, but for the beastly gratification of the nobility, who looked on at the most revolting spectacles and games, through which strong men, and women too, went down to death, torn apart by wild beasts in the arena. It was the custom to train certain men to armes that they might act as gladiators on the fete days. If the mother of that day could pierce the future with the eye of love and tenderness and see the struggles, the writhings and tortures of the infant babe which she held up to her bosom in tenderness and love, she would instead of prolonging life end the earthly visit of her offspring before the first tottering steps were taken toward the arena in which the earth would drink the life-blood, amid the shouts and plaudits of debauched men and women, who were born into the world as the supposed owners and rulers of the working poor.


The right to inaugurate a movement having for its object the setting apart of a certain day, or number of days, on which demonstrations, processions, or meetings would take place, was denied the artisans and workers of that period. They were not privileged to hold any festival without the consent of their owners, and they dare not ask for that consent, even; to do so would be hazardous to life and happiness, if we can imagine that happiness existed in the midst of such a depraved atmosphere. When the masters of men went to battle and were victorious in capturing the slaves of their opponents, they erected gibbets, and upon them crucified the unfortunates who had performed service for those who they had encountered upon the field. Frequently the slaves were taken to the arena where they were turned loose, one at a time, to combat naked-handed with wild beasts, whose appetites had been whetted by hunger in [ 7 ] anticipation of their coming. Every cruelty, every indignity, and every humiliation tell to the lot of the laborers of Europe, or that part of it that was supposed to be civilized. The barbarians who swarmed around ancient Rome and crushed her haughty spirit were far more humane and just than the lords who looked upon those who were born poor as theirs to drive in life and torture to death if it so pleased them. The original slave-owner was the father who had the right allowable under the code by which the ancients were governed. We may easily see that labor was held in contempt, that those who performed it were regarded as of far less value than the tigers, hyenas, and other wild animals which were kept caged and ready to furnish amusement for the nobility by feeding upon the quivering flesh of the men of labor. Not only were the poor ignorant slaves put to the torture, but men of noble birth were found in the marts where slaves were bought and sold. When an invading army came back with the trophies and prisoners it frequently happened that among the latter were men of rank and education. These were treated as slaves from the moment they ceased to be opposing warriors on the field. They were obliged to labor side by side with the hereditary bondsman, and with him they went to the arena to kill and be killed for the pleasure of the assembled multitudes who hurrahed and cheered as the hot blood spurted from hearts that were torn from men whose eyes could yet look upon the ghastly spectacle.


As the numbers of the intellectual slaves increased the discontent among the workers increased and after a time it found vent in the strike against injustice. Some six centuries before the advent of Christ the practice of allowing slaves to purchase their freedom was established and recognized. The custom had to some extent prevailed throughout Rome and Greece previous to that time, but it was not recognized as anything more binding than a mere whim of the slave-owner. The principle one established, men strove to secure the moiety of freedom which came after they had purchased from their owners the right to call themselves free men. Their lot was but little better than that of their former associates and the compensation they received never exceeded twenty cents a day. The workmen were actuated by no pride of home or country, they were not so particular about obtaining their freedom except for the reason that the paganism of that day taught that the man who did not own his liberty could not own a soul. In reality the workman who purchased his freedom believed that he purchased a soul at the same time. Slaves, freemen, men and women worked together in field and mine, they frequently worked naked and in reality were not sensible of their deep degradation. As the intellect became aroused among the few it spread its influence to others and secret meetings during the dark hours of the night were held. During these meetings the conditions which harassed them were talked over and plans were discussed for their amelioration. The first great strike on record was that of 20,000 workmen of Athens, who went out of the mines and shops and went over to the enemy of their country at a time when it was in greatest peril. That was during the Peloponnesian war, in the year 413 B. C.


Previous to that time no Sundays or other rest days were allowed the workers. When mines or shops were owned by the government and were leased to contractors the laborers were leased along with the property. Much as the participants in the awful scenes which took place in the arena dreaded the approach of the day wen the gladiatorial games were to come off, the great mass of the workers were indifferent to their surroundings and regarded such days as breathing spells. They were so hardened and beastialized by the frequent exhibitions of brutality that they regarded the shedding of human blood as a mere pastime, and as the victims went down [ 8 ] or the last time in the arena they felt that for them at least it was a happy release from toil. The gladiators themselves seldom cared to leave the arena alive, for they lived in dread of the summons to invade its precincts. Some seventy years before the coming of Christ, Spartacus succeeded in causing the gladiator to organize against the practice of compelling men to kill each other for the mere gratification of the lords and ladies of that age. With such a leader as Spartacus the workingmen took hope and made a most desperate effort to crush the powers that had so ruthlessly trampled upon the rights of humanity for so many ages. The struggle of Spartacus was a strike against oppression and slavery. Although it ended in his death and the crucifixion of some 6,000 of his followers, it left so strong and enduring an impression upon the minds of the people that its lesson has not yet been forgotten.


It is said that organizations of labor existed at the time of the erection of Solomon's Temple. The craftsmen employed upon that structure were banded together in something akin to a trades-union and were enabled to make themselves understood by each other through the use of mystic signs and cabalistic symbols which conveyed no meaning to their masters. Trades-union flourished so long ago that no trace of their origin can be followed with any degree of accuracy. The skilled and the unskilled workers were banded together in guilds, leagues and unions. On many occasions attempts were made to secure freedom from bondage, but each time the plans were frustrated through the treachery of some of the members who cared more for the fleeting smile of a master than the benefits which would follow independence. That the number of traitors was not greater in those ancient days was due to the fact that death, certain and swift, followed the act of the betrayer as his surest reward. Whether the master paid for the treachery in coin or honeyed words the fate meted out to the treacherous one by his fellow-workers was always death and as a consequence only the man who was ignorant of what had happened to others dared betray his associates. Ignorance of the past and future was what caused the treachery of those ancient days, then as now ignorance was the most dangerous foe to the advance of freedom and equality.


With the dawn of Christianity came an awakening of hope, an arousing of the intellect that nothing in history had ever occasioned before. Christ said that the "the laborer is worthy of his hire," that "the land shall not be sold forever," and all through His stay upon earth enunciated new doctrines on the question of labor and its relations to those who lived upon it. Trades-unionists, members of guilds, leagues and other organizations of workingmen embraced Christianity and proclaimed its doctrines as being especially advantageous to the welfare of the toiling poor. Thousands flocked around the standard of Christianity, for the reason that it was emblematic of progress, of liberty and equality among men. The artisan, the iron-worker, the worker in wood and stone, the laborer of the village, city and field and the poor toiling slave were all included among those for whom Christ died. It was the first time in history of the world that such a doctrine had been proclaimed, and it was no wonder that new hope, new strength and energy took life in the human breast.


Festivals, holidays and fete days were celebrated after the dawn of the Christian era as before, and in many of the drunken orgies which disgraced these occasions, while honoring the memory of some warrior, statesman or saint, the same practices prevailed as in the days when paganism commanded the adoration of some god of wood or stone, as a distinctive feature of the celebration. Slowly the doctrine of equality made its progress, its every step was harassed by those who believed that the many should be the property of the few. Long hours of toil made it impossible for the man to study after entering upon his life-work, but here and there some man [ 9 ] escaped from the drudgery of the treadmill and gave his effort and talent for the elevation of mankind. Such men were few in the beginning, but the example they set found worthy disciples as the centuries followed each other. The abolition of human slavery followed in the footsteps of Christianity and with the shadow of liberty in sight the aim and effort was to reach for and obtain the substance.


The aim of the organization of labor in ancient times was to obtain better food, more of it and the right to the soil. The wage question did not constitute so prominent a factor in the deliberations of the association, for the slavery of the past had precluded the possibility of obtaining wages as a reward for service rendered. It was not considered honorable for a man to accept pay for his labor, he might accept a present of more than his wage would amount to, but it must be understood that it was not pay he worked for. The slave worked for clothing, food, and shelter. He organized for more food, more clothing and better shelter. As the soil gave forth what he wanted in the way of food, his struggle was in part for the soil. The element of revenge was not wanting in the stimulus to organization, for the inhuman cruelties practiced upon the slave workmen called for vengeance. When Mummius, the Roman Consul, conquered Corinth, the last vestige of the Grecian empire was destroyed, and afterwards Rome was the world and the world was Rome, for she ruled all that was great on earth. Speaking of the decline of the Grecian empire, Professor Droysen says:


"In her last days, frivolous; marked only by outward show instead or real worth; without self-control or noble motive; without virtue; without religion, Greeece finally entertained that intellectual, piquant, profligate immorality which invariably constitutes the last phase in the history of a sinking people."
The boundaries of Rome were: On the north, the Lower Rhine, Main, and Danube; on the east, the Euphrates; on the south, the desert of Arabia, and Africa; on the west, the Atlantic. Caesar had conquered England, but not Ireland or Scotland. With the irruption of the hordes of Germany the power of Rome declined, and in that declination the Roman workmen themselves took an active part, for they had no cause to either respect or love their country. One passage from Fay's "Three Germanys" will serve to show why the Roman workman had cause to organize for revenge above all other things:


"The field slaves, chained by the feet and branded with the owner's mark, were at night driven into filthy subterranean prisons. A single nobleman sometimes possessed four thousand of these wretched cattle. The boasted Roman law, to say nothing of mercy, had no justice for the slave. When a nobleman was murdered and the murderer could not be discovered, the law required that every slave who had passed the night beneath the owner's roof, should be executed, because of the possibility 'that he might have been privy to the crime.' The prefect of Rome, Pedanius Secundus (under Nero), was murdered. In his palace were four hundred slaves, all of whom, including women, and even new-born children, were put to death. Some protests against this act arose in the Senate, but an eminent Senator, C. Cassius, delivered a speech on the occasion which may still be read in Tacitus. He warned the Senate against any modification of the law, pronounced it indispensable to the safety of Rome, and presented arguments of such weight that the Senate, instead of abolishing the law, made it more severe. ' These barbarians,' said Cassius, ' are ready, on every occasion, to rise and massacre us. They can be governed only by fear. Some innocent, no doubt, may suffer, but what does that weigh against the safety of the whole empire?' "


Through the bloody scenes of strife which have marked the course of the world since Christianity dawned upon it, the organization of labor has not been lost sight of, and wherever it [10] has existed, there the human race has taken higher ground upon the plane of equality and freedom.


The establishment of the Swiss Republic followed the organization of the thirteen Guilds of workmen in the valleys which lay between the rugged peaks of Switzerland, and after the adoption of the Perpetual League by the Swiss Confederacy, on the first of August, 1291, these Guilds constituted a prominent part of the political machinery of the nation. The Perpetual League of the Swiss Confederacy of 1291, after reciting the causes which preceded the formation of the union, set forth, in thirteen statutes, the compact by which the various States were united. The fourth is so applicable to the situation in the United States to-day that it is well to reproduce it here. It reads:


"4. We have also promised, decreed and ordered in common council and by unanimous consent, that we will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys, who shall have obtained his office for any price, or for money in any way whatever, or one who shall not be a native or a resident with us."


The progress, although slow, was steady until the war for independence in the United Colonies in America. The ancient Grecians and Romans had no United States to fly to when detected in the attempt to overthrow the rule of the oppressor. Ater the discovery of America the daring, independent, liberty-loving people of Europe turned their face toward the new shores and there built up a sentiment that eventually spread like a beacon of hope to all parts of the earth. When it was written in Philadelphia and proclaimed to the world that "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," a most wonderful epoch marked the development of the human race.


In strange contrast with the words of C. Cassius, above quoted, stands that declaration. Whether intended to have an influence beyond the boundaries of the United States or not, that declaration went farther, it found an echo in the heart os the French people, who wrote in letters of blood, as the structure of republicanism began to raise its head in France, the words: "Liberty, equality, fraternity." Labor, the foundation of everything enduring, was enslaved, crushed and degraded and as a consequence the nations crumbled away for want of attention to the foundations on which they were erected. After the war for independence ended in the United States labor was respected and the difference between the employer and the employed was not marked by the chasm which began to widen and grow deep after the civil war which ended at Appomattox.


Since 1865 the tendency in the United States has been toward making the laborer a mere hewer of wood and drawer of water. The march in this direction has been hastened by the insidious attacks made upon us by the governments of Europe. Agents of foreign governments are constantly among us and wealthy Americans go in a steady stream every year to Europe where they imbibe nothing that is healthy or good for the institutions of democracy. As the government of the United States stood out the foremost monument of progress and equality so has it been the most hated and envied among nations. As the down-trodden and despairing turned toward the shores of America for aid and hope the oppressors of these men, through their governments, endeavored to sow the seeds of dissension and distrust among us by importing manners, customs and habits that should find no place or nutriment in a democracy. Soon a class of Americans began to ape the air of monarchists. Servants were put in livery in chamber and on the coachman's seat. Coats of arms were resurrected or invented and on many an avenue or street in the United States on can find much that resembles the capitals of Europe and monarchy. So far has [11] this gone that men in the United States find themselves insulted if they are obliged to treat with laboring men. Masters and servant are terms that we hear oftener than in the past. Machinery, every hour becoming more perfect, makes it possible for men to accomplish results much quicker than heretofore, yet the hours of labor are longer, in proportion, than they ever were. The railway train, the horse car and now the electric car, the mill, the shop, the factory and mine are not regulated by the laws of Christianity, they recognize no creed or country, they respect neither Sunday or Sabbath. They work during the whole seven days of the week when men can be found to operate them, and in view of this condition of affairs the organizations of labor began to question whether it was wise to allow this leveling down tendency to make progress without a protest. The first to take notice of the wrong was the Order of the Knights of Labor, and in the councils of that organization the question of establishing a holiday that would stand separate and apart from all other holidays as a Labor Day was first brought up for discussion.


On September 5, 1882, the General Assembly of the Order of the Knights of Labor convened in New York City. The various labor organizations of the city and vicinity paraded that day and afterwards held a picnic at which addresses were delivered. The Knights of Labor of New York were not working openly at that time, the name of the Order was kept secret and such public expression of the sentiments of the members as went out to the world went under other names than those selected to designate the Local Assemblies. Under different names the Local Assemblies were represented in the Central Labor Union and the coming of the General Assembly to New York was a subject for discussion at several meetings previous to the opening of the Convention. When the General Assembly was opened on September 5, a communication was read from the secretary of the New York Central Labor Union, Matthew McGuire, inviting the members of the body to review the great parade from the grand stand at Union Square. A recess was taken in order to comply with the request of the Central Labor Union and the members of the General Assembly witnessed the first Labor Day parade. During the time that the various organizations were passing the Grand Stand at Union Square, Robert Price, of Lonaconing, Md., turned to the General Worthy Foreman of the Knights of Labor, Richard Griffiths, and said : " This is Labor Day in earnest, Uncle Dick." Whether that was the first time the term had been used is not known but the event was afterwards referred to as the Labor Day parade. In 1883 the organizations of New York paraded on the first Monday in September. When in 1884 the Central Labor Union of New York had the question of parading up for discussion, George K. Lloyd, a Knight of Labor, offered a resolution declaring the first Monday in September to be Labor Day. The resolution was adopted and steps were at once taken to have the Legislature enact a law making the first Monday in September a legal holiday, to be known as Labor Day. The agitation, begun in New York, extended to other States with most gratifying results. The following is the list of States in which Labor Day laws have been passed. So far as obtainable the names of the legislator who introduced the bills and the dates on which the measures became laws are given. For convenience of the reader the States are named in alphabetical order :


Alabama.
Hon. Oscar R. Hundley, member of the Senate from Huntsville, introduced the bill making the first Monday in September a holiday, to be known as Labor Day. The same was enacted into law and received the signature of Governor Thomas G. Jones on December 12, 1892.


California.
Senator N. C. Maher, of San Francisco, introduced the measure during the last session. It passed both houses and received the approval of Governor H. H. Markham on March 23, 1883. Labor Day in California is held on the first Monday in October. [12]


Colorado.
On January 20, 1887, Hon. Joseph F. Hoover, of Leadville, introduced a bill in the Legislature, and on March 15 of that year Governor Alva Adams affixed his signature to the Act after its passage through both houses of the Colorado Legislature.


Connecticut.
Hon. A. P. Hunie, on January 22, 1889, introduced the bill in the Connecticut Legislature; it became a law and was approved by the Governor on March 20, 1889.


Delaware.
Senator John Pyle, of Wilmington, introduced the Labor Day law in the Legislature of Delaware. It passed both houses and was approved on February 14, 1893. In Delaware the Governor is not required to sign or approve of laws passed by the Legislature and the Labor Day law bears the signatures of Charles B. Houston, Speaker of the Senate, and Harvey Whiteman, Speaker of the House of Representatives of Delaware.


Georgia.
The Legislature of 1891 passed into law the bill introduced by Hon. E. W. Martin, and on October 16 of that year Governor W. J. Northen signed the bill.


Illinois.
The Thirty-seventh General Assembly of Illinois passed the law making the first Monday in September a legal holiday. The bill was introduced in the Senate by Hon. Albert W. Wells, and was approved by Governor Joseph W. Fifer on June 17, 1891.


Indiana.
By an Act of the Legislature, approved March 9, 1891, the first Monday in September was made a legal holiday, to be known as Labor Day.


Iowa.
On February 28, 1890, Hon. W. W. Dodge introduced the original bill making Labor Day a legal holiday to the Iowa Senate. A substitute was offered, and on March 19th all members of the Senate voted for the measure. It went to the Lower House and was adopted there on March 26th, all present voting for it, and on April 5, 1890, was signed by Governor Boies.


Kansas.
The custom of recognizing the first Monday in September as Labor Day was established in Kansas in 1890, and the Governor of the State made it legal by proclamation. At the session of 1891 Governor Lyman U. Humphrey, in his biennial message, recommended that the Legislature enact the measure into law. Senator Elliston introduced the bill in the Senate. It became a law and was signed by the Governor on March 4, 1891.


Louisiana.
Act 93 of 1892 makes November 25 a legal holiday, to be known as Labor Day in New Orleans and all cities with a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants in the State. Governor M. J. Foster approved of the bill July 7, 1892.


Maine.
Maine enacted a law at the session of the Legislature held in 1891, and declared the first Monday in September to be a "legal holiday, the same as Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Decoration Day and the Fourth of July are now by law made public holidays." The bill originated in the House of Representatives, was presented by Hon. Edward J. Irvine, and received the signature of Governor Burleigh on February 10, 1891.


Maryland.
A bill to make Decoration Day a legal holiday was introduced in the Maryland Legislature in January, 1890, and became a law. While it was on passage Hon. J. H. Jones, of Baltimore, offered an amendment making Labor Day a legal holiday, but it was not adopted.


Massachusetts.
Massachusetts in the session of 1887, acted upon a bill presented by Senator Alger, of Cambridge, on February 2, It passed both Houses, and on May 11 of that year received the signature of the Governor. [13]


Michigan.
There is a bill before the Legislature of Michigan having for its object the creating of a legal holiday, to be known as Labor Day, but definite action has not yet been taken upon it.


Missouri.
On the fourteenth day of the legislative session of 1889 Hon. Francis X. Roterman of St. Louis, introduced the bill to the Missouri Legislature. When the vote was taken it stood ayes 65, nays 38 ; it required 71 votes to pass a bill in the House, and the measure was defeated.


Montana.
Montana passed a law making the first Monday in September a legal holiday, to be known as Labor Day. This bill originated in the Senate and was introduced by Hon. E. D. Matts. I do not know the date of the adoption of the law, but was at the session of the Montana Legislature held in 1890 - 91.


Nebraska.
In Nebraska Senator Frank Ransom, on January 9, 1889, offered a bill making Labor Day a legal holiday. It passed the Senate by a unanimous vote on the 17th of that month, and on March 29 passed the House and received the signature of the Governor.


New Hampshire.

On June 7, 1887, Mr. Stone, of Andover, introduced a bill in the Legislature of New Hampshire to establish Labor Day, but the committee to which it was referred it back with these words on the envelope : "Inexpedient to legislate." In the session of 1891 Hon. Andrew Killoren, of Dover, introduced the Labor Day Bill. It passed both Houses and was signed by the Governor but I could not learn the dated of the signature.


New Jersey.

Hon. William Harrigan, of Newark, introduced a bill in the New Jersey Legislature on January 31, 1887. It passed both Houses and was signed by the Governor, April 8, 1887.


New York.
On January 4, 1887, Senator Edward F. Reilly, of New York City, introduced the bill in the New York Senate, and after passing both houses, it was signed by Governor Hill on May 6, 1887.


Ohio.
In the Ohio House of Representatives Hon. John P. Green introduced the Labor Day Bill on March 10, 1890. It was signed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate on April 28, 1890.


Oregon.
In Oregon the bill was introduced by Hon. J. J. Daley, of Dallas, Polk County, January 17, 1887, and on February of that year it received the signature of the Governor.


Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania the bill was originally introduced by Senator Lines on January 17, 1889. It passed both Houses and was signed by Governor Beaver on April 25 of that year.


Tennessee.
In the session of the Legislature of Tennessee of 1891 Mr. Allaman introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to make Labor Day a legal holiday. The bill passed both Houses and was signed by Governor Buchanan on March 11, 1891. At the session prior to that the Tennessee Legislature enacted a law making "all days set apart for holding County, State, or National elections legal holidays."


Texas.
Senator Miles Crowley, of Galveston, introduced the bill in the Texas Legislature to amend the Revised Civil Statutes, by adding the first Monday in September to the list of legal holidays, the same to be known as Labor Day. On the 10th of February, 1893, the bill, after passing both houses was approved. [15]


Washington.
Senator John R. Kinnear, of Kings County, introduced the Labor Day Law in the Legislature of 1891. It passed the House on the 9th of February, the Senate on the 28th of January and was approved by the Governor on February 24, 1891.


Wisconsin.
In his annual message to the last Legislature Governor Peck said: "A large number of citizens who celebrate Artisans' Day as an annual festival are desirous of having it made a legal holiday. I feel much in sympathy with this, to me, reasonable request of the people whose holidays are few, and therefore commend this subject to your careful consideration." The bill, which is now Chapter 271 of the laws of 1893, was introduced by Assemblyman Harmon, passed the Legislature on April 17th, received the approval of the Governor on the 19th of the same month and was published as a law of Wisconsin on May 2, 1893. Section I of the bill reads : "The Governor is hereby authorized to set apart by proclamation one day in each year to be observed as Labor Day, for the purpose of affording all laboring classes one day of rest and recreation, and which day when so set apart shall be, and the same is hereby declared a legal holiday." The law does not specify what day the Governor shall designate, but Governor Peck has assured the labor organizations that such day as they may select will be chosen by him as Labor Day.


Twenty-five States have adopted Labor Day legislation. In the legislatures of other States the measure has at various times been brought forward, but with no result other than to agitate the question for a time and then drop it. With the exception of California, Louisiana and Wisconsin, the first Monday in September is the date fixed by statute. In California the first Monday in October is Labor Day; in Louisiana, November 25 is the date on which cities with a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants observe Labor Day, while Wisconsin leaves it optional with the governor to select the date.


New York was the first State in the Union to introduce the measure before the Legislature and Oregon the first State to pass the bill into law.


In many cities and towns May 1st is selected by trades-unions as the day on which parades are held, but the selection of that dated is simply a matter of choice and in no way interferes with the observance of the legal Labor Day holiday, which all organizations of labor celebrate later on. The first of May was in ancient times celebrated in honor of Flora and was observed with floral rites. The Druids were in the habit of celebrating May first by lighting bonfires upon the tops of hills. In Europe the labor organizations find it convenient to select May first as a day on which labor discussions and strikes are inaugurated.


The real significance of the American Labor Day lies in the fact that on that day no question of local importance, no strike, no controversy or dispute shall interfere with the observance of that day. On that day the workers meet and either parade or hold festivals of another character, during which time speaker address the assembled multitudes. It was the intention of those who introduced the first Labor Day resolution to make the day stand apart from all other holidays in the nature of its observance. While parades, picnics, festivals and games, were permissible, the principle feature of the exercises was to consist of lectures and discourses upon topics relating to the welfare of the industrial masses. Every question of political, social and economic importance should be discussed at the meetings on Labor Day. On other days the intellectual in man is not appealed to as on Labor Day. The grounds on which the industrialists assemble on the first Monday in September should resemble an "open court," in which both sides -- all sides -- to the great question of production should be discussed.


During the last two years a new feature has been introduced by inviting employers of labor to take part in the demonstrations and address the meetings from the standpoint of the employer, or any other that might appear more appropriate to the speaker. [15]


With his eyes constantly directed toward his bread-winning task the worker could not look upon the world outside of his own narrow surroundings. After his long hours of toil he required rest and could devote no time to reading or studying the condition of the world of labor, art, literature, commerce or science. With constant labor as his portion, with no breathing spell accorded to him, the toiler could not be blamed for regarding the employer as a task-master and society at large as a tyrant, which exacted for its benefit and pleasure all that was worth having of the physical in man, while dwarfing the mental faculties to such small proportions as to imperil the future of the race.


Properly understood Labor Day is a day on which all that is ambitious, noble, lofty and grand in the nature of the workman should be appealed to. Those who discuss the questions of the hour before meeting of industrialists on that day should be educators, they should be teachers of the gospel of humanity and its needs, not mammon and its greeds.  Those who address such meetings are burdened with a weighty responsibility. It is their duty to teach a doctrine of independence of thought and action to the industrian. The rights of man to the earth and its products, the rights of man to all that his labor creates and the duty of the industrian as a self-reliant citizen should all occupy the thought of the speaker and be the theme of his discourse. In olden times workmen were brought into the arena to rest from labor while killing each other for the amusement of their masters. In later times workmen were obliged to continue at work and thus kill the best part in man -- the mental -- through hard, unceasing toil, while adding to the profits of their employers. When holidays were observed in ancient times they were in commemoration of some notable event in which labor was not considered, in honor of some image of wood or stone or else to celebrate the anniversary of some sage, warrior, saint or hero, who had been called to his eternal account.


Labor Day is to be a day of rest, of recreation and education. The physical in man is to rest while the mental is to be improved. The day is to be celebrated not in honor of any one man living or dead, but in honor of, and by, living throbbing, pulsating humanity, the needs of which stand higher than respect for the memory of the dead or a regard for their wishes. To-day, to-morrow, the future are all before us on Labor Day, of these we think, talk and for these we work. That which will best serve the living men and women of to-day, and the future should receive the careful attention of all who take part in honoring that greatest of all factors in ministering to the good of the world -- Labor.


So far Labor Day is but an experiment, whether it shall continue as a day on which the duties of citizenship shall be taught, the needs of living humanity discussed and the duties we owe to the million who will come upon the world, to make or mar its future, shall be considered, remains to be seen. From a position of menial servitude, the most degrading and humiliating, the workman has advanced to higher altitudes in mental and physical freedom. From a servitude in which he could, without question, be killed for the amusement of his master, the workman has emerged and now he stands free from every thrall save his own prejudices of creed, of craft, of politics and race. If Labor Day is observed as it ought to be, the gospel of humanity will be understood by all men and women ; there will be no slaves to employer, party, boss, or creed. "Love thy neighbor as thyself," though he bow not before the same altar. "Do unto your neighbor as you would have your neighbor do unto you," will have a meaning not now understood as they should be this side of the portals where eternity begins and God rules in the presence of those He calls from the earth. [16]


Source:

Labor Day Annual, 1893. T. V. Powderly and A. W. Wright, Editors. Pages 7 - 16. Copyrighted The Labor Annual Publishing Company, Philadelphia, 1893.The original pagination appears in brackets.

This text is (cc) 2006 by Silver Persinger.
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