Every Labor Day, I can always count on several news articles that will remind people that the annual holiday “really” exists to honor the contributions of workers to the economy, the nation, and to posterity. These pieces inevitably trace the holiday back to its roots in organized labor’s struggle for the eight-hour work day and the violence that accompanied much of these efforts. Without fail, they will mention the Haymarket Affair, where in 1886 Chicago police killed several demonstrators after a bomb was thrown at them, as the event that galvanized popular support for a national “Labor Day” celebration. Of course, this yearly lesson in labor history usually intimates a few “friendly reminders” to readers. First of all, Labor Day is not simply the last day of the summer season before children return to school, or the day after which to be seen wearing white would suddenly becomes a profane act. Secondly, Labor Day is not an excuse to BBQ and celebrate the beginning of the football season (college or professional, whatever your preference). No. What these articles tend to draw our attention to is the fact that a holiday created to give workers a day off the job to relax with families and receive the recognition of their communities for their efforts has become a day, ironically, when the majority of wage earners in the retail industry (by far the largest segment of the workforce) still go to work to meet the needs (well, okay, let’s call them consumer desires) of the rest of us, for whom the day was not created. It is the salaried white-collar world that has coopted the holiday to suit its own interests, at the expense of the working class. They honor workers by requiring them to work in their stores (usually for time and a half, admittedly) for longer than usual hours so that those with the greater buying power might be enticed away from their homes to engage in consumption, be it for a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks or a new laptop for a new school year.
While, on one hand, I do think that it is important to recognize how the range of meanings and practices associated with Labor Day has shifted significantly over the last century, such polemics against the holiday’s contemporary orientation rely on the assumption that in the origin narrative one will find the “true” meaning of Labor Day. It is a narrative of declension that these stories signal to the population, imposing a particular set of moral claims that need to be acknowledged. It claims work as a virtue and yet decries acts of conspicuous consumption as vicious. By declaring the original meaning of the holiday as pure, it portrays current cultural configurations as illegitimate. In depicting the past as pure, they present the today as corrupt.
However, such origin narratives obscure what can be said of the past, and indeed the present, as much as they might reveal. They erect a picture of the past as a time when laborers actively fought and won their place of honor in the order of things, while failing to recognize that Labor Day, from its inception, was always in part a strategic retreat of the powerful with the eventuality of pacifying a workforce that was rapidly becoming an unpredictable force for the emerging captains of industry of the late nineteenth century. The first weekend of September was chosen precisely because it was divorced from International Labour Day that occurs on May 5th every year. Labor Day was decidedly NOT to be associated with its international cousin May Day, and its affinity to international communism. In this light, Labor Day itself might be understood as a “false” reproduction of the “true” original worker’s day, and that from its inception, was intended to serve moneyed interests. Could it be that Labor Day was always about everyone else but the leisure classes and that as consumer culture matured, it would simply evolve along with everything else? I suppose it all depends on the particular stories of origins to which one appeals.