Monday, September 04, 2006

The Origins of Labor Day

From Ezra Klein:

Ah, Labor Day. That fine September morning when we celebrate the genius of Jonathan Labor, who first invented the barbecue on a hot, late Summer morning when he accidentally dropped some raw meat on the superheated grill of his Toyota Corolla. God bless you, Jonathan Labor. And God bless America.

You know, I wonder how many folks I could actually get to believe that story. It's not like Labor Day means anything else. It certainly isn't, as legendary AFL leader Samuel Gompers had hoped, "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed...that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

Instead, it's a day off of work, that includes a barbecue, that closes out the Summer, that's divorced from all meaning. Labor Day actually commemorates an annual parade the Knights of Labor held in New York. Concerned by the movement to mark the Haymarket Riots in a holiday, Grover Cleveland (who brutally broke the Pullman strike), hijacked the parade date so the day would honor a less radical, less dangerous conception of labor. But we can still hew somewhat near Gompers' original vision, and take a moment between bites of burger to think a bit about labor. Here are a few recommended ways:

• Read Nathan Newman on the genius of unions.

• Read Katrina Vanden Huevel on the lessons of Labor Day.

• Buy Thomas Geoghegan's "Which Side Are You On," the greatest book ever written about anything.

• If you already own Geoghegan, check out "The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit," a biography of Walter Reuther.

• Go throw a few bucks to Wake Up Wal-Mart.

And above all remember: You've the unions to thank for this beautiful day off, just like you've them to thank for weekends, eight-hour workdays, and the fact that you weren't a cashier at age seven. And if you don't have today off, well, maybe you should think about starting a union...

Food, as they say, for thought. . . . .

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