Labor Day: A Capitalist Holiday

How Grover Cleveland used the holiday to divide the Left.

Almost no one pays tribute to the American labor movement on Labor Day nowadays because America, despite its leftward drift in recent years, is not a nation that exalts brawn over brains or socialism over capitalism.

Americans don’t care about President Obama’s final Labor Day message, a mixture of facts and well-worn leftist propaganda.

“For generations, every time the economy changed, hardworking Americans marched and organized and joined unions to demand not simply a bigger paycheck for themselves, but better conditions and more security for the folks working next to them, too,” Obama said in his weekly address. “Their efforts are why we can enjoy things like the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, and a minimum wage. Their efforts are why we can depend on health insurance, Social Security, Medicare and retirement plans.”

“All of that progress,” he added, “is stamped with the union label.”

Americans are smart enough to take Obama’s socialist claptrap with a grain of salt. This is a man who derides hard work, saying “you didn’t build that,” and “when you spread the wealth around it’s good for everybody.”

Americans respect hard work but they do not engage in the hateful Marxist tribalism and redistributionism that consumes backwards, kleptoparasitic states like Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.  

“I think most people consider Labor Day an end-of-summer three-day weekend,” David Ray Papke, a law professor at Marquette University, told the Huffington Post. “Very few Americans stop to reflect on the working man, on labor, on the union movement or any of those things.”

And that is a wonderful thing. 

In America everyone is equal before and under the law, able to achieve and chase their dreams, unburdened by ancient albatrosses like class and caste. Americans don’t care about the labor movement because it hasn’t done anything for them. They don’t care that the movement is dying, and in most cases aren’t even aware it’s in rough shape. And that too is a good thing.

American statesmen had the good sense to create Labor Day more than a century ago to help co-opt the always violent labor movement and derail, or at least slow, the frighteningly speedy headway that the radical leftists – communists and anarchists – had been making during the Progressive Era.

Today most of the Left boasts that Labor Day is their holiday. The U.S. Department of Labor’s website predictably gushes that:

The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.

This fetishizing of workers is what one might expect with a Marxist in the White House. So is the lie that “economic democracy,” a socialist concept, is any kind of an American ideal. 

Contrary to what many labor historians say, the invention of Labor Day was not a victory for the Left.

Labor Day was created as a reaction to the organized, terroristic violence of the labor movement. It was an attempt to placate the angry bomb-throwing radicals who were trying to destabilize America when parts of the country were ripe for revolt and other parts were actually in revolt. 

And it worked. Labor Day defanged the American Left.

According to the Bernie Sanders fan site, Jacobin, potential trouble was brewing in the late 19th century when Labor Day was born. An article by Jonah Walters states:

At the end of the nineteenth century, the American labor movement was among the most militant in the world. From the stockyards of Chicago to the coal mines of Pennsylvania, workplaces all over the country were in open revolt. Strikes were commonplace, often leading to violent confrontations between rebellious workers and private militias like the despised Pinkertons. Even Marx held high hopes for revolution in the US, speculating that the country’s long battles over suffrage ripened conditions for revolt. “Nowhere does social inequality obtrude itself more harshly than in the Eastern States of North America,” he wrote, “because it is nowhere less glossed over by political inequality.”

This social inequality that Karl Marx bemoans, is better understood as economic inequality, which, of course, is a feature of markets and proof that economic freedom exists. The fact that everyone is not forcibly brought down to the same level by socialist schemers in government is precisely what allows Americans to generate the kind of wealth never before seen in any society.

Returning to the 1890s, there was an economic contraction that cut demand for railway cars. This forced captain of industry George Pullman to reduce his workforce and cut wages. When his employees went on strike in May 1894, other unions refused to handle Pullman cars, a move that disrupted commerce nationwide. In July, President Grover Cleveland deployed U.S. troops to Chicago to preserve property rights and put down the strike. Angry mobs responded by setting railroad cars on fire.

Soon after these ugly confrontations started, Congress rushed through stalled legislation, which Cleveland signed into law making Labor Day a national holiday. Pressed by the similarly named socialist labor activists Matthew Maguire and Peter McGuire, many states had already acted on their own before that. From 1887 to that point, 23 states had created their own Labor Day holidays.

According to the House of Representatives historian, the new national Labor Day was an immediate success.

The response to the new holiday was overwhelmingly positive. Labor unions in cities such as Boston, Nashville, and St. Louis celebrated with parades and picnics. Large turnouts in Chicago (30,000) and Baltimore (10,000) underscored the holiday’s popularity. 

President Cleveland was no socialist. He was also no fool. Labor Day was placed in September to divide and conquer the Left.

“To disassociate American labor from any connection with socialism, the first Monday of September was chosen to honor American workers rather than 1 May, which in 1889 the Second Socialist International in Paris had designated as International Workers Day.” (The Encyclopedia of New York State, by Peter R. Eisenstadt and Laura-Eve Moss, p.853)

Unlike much of the Left, the writers at Jacobin are not in denial about the origins and significance of Labor Day. They see Labor Day as a corporate holiday, or a “boss’s holiday.” The real day for radical labor agitators is not the first Monday in September, but is in fact May 1, which, as noted above, has been long recognized as the day for working-class solidarity. “Cleveland’s choice to establish Labor Day in September deflected attention away from another explosive labor action — the Haymarket massacre of 1886, the origin of international observance of the May 1 holiday.”

Jacobin belittles the patriotic labor leader (yes, they used to exist) Samuel Gompers, who was president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had opposed the Pullman strike.

Gompers immediately endorsed the president’s holiday — Cleveland even presented him with the pen used to sign the holiday in law. Gompers later wrote a superlative column in the New York Times praising Labor Day as the harbinger of “a new epoch in the annals of human history.” He made the absurd claim that Labor Day “differs essentially from some of the other holidays of the year in that it glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man,” and wrote scathingly about the “dark side of the labor movement” represented by the Pullman strikers.

Labor Day, according to the leftists at Jacobin, “marks our historic defeat, not our triumph.”

Which is why every freedom-loving, patriotic American should celebrate Labor Day.