Labor Day Ironies

Appreciation of Labor Day requires an active sense of irony. Local celebrations of workers’ collective strength in the United States predated the declaration of May Day, its international equivalent. While May Day never took root in the United States, the day’s selection for a global event resulted from the earlier scheduling of an American one. The president who made Labor Day a national holiday did so soon after sending federal forces to end a major strike, precisely the maneuver he’d opposed while campaigning for office around the time of another labor action with a bloody ending. The leader whose union that president decimated had initially backed his electoral campaign. For his involvement in the strike, the unionist ended up in jail, from which he emerged as a national figure who became one of the most prominent third party presidential candidates in the nation’s history. May Day and Labor Day share decidedly secular origins, but workers grafted religious elements to their holidays. Unions in the city that first celebrated Labor Day eventually saw it members preferring to use the day off from work that their efforts have won for activities other than a parade, which they eventually held on another day, if at all.

The convocation of socialist parties and unions known as the Second International in 1889 passed a resolution calling for a simultaneous, worldwide demonstration in favor of law limiting the working day to eight hours and since such a rally had already been planned in the United States for the following May 1, the body decided to use that date. As it fell on a Thursday, unions in various countries found themselves having to decide whether members should go on strike in support of the cause. Cautious parties and unions opted to demonstrate on the first Sunday of the month instead. However, historian Eric Hobsbawm insists that refusing to work made May Day meaningful. In a paper on it in Uncommon People, he writes:

It was the act of symbolically stopping work which turned May Day into more than just another demonstration, or even another commemorative occasion…. For refraining from work on a working day was both an assertion of working-class power – in fact, the quintessential assertion of this power – and the essence of freedom, namely not being forced to labour in the sweat of one’s brow, but choosing what to do in the company of family and friends. It was thus both a gesture of class assertion and class struggle and a holiday: a sort of trailer for the good life to come after the emancipation of labour.

The call for this symbolically potent event did not specify it as a recurring one, but with the day’s success, in the form of unexpectedly high levels of participation in many cities, the Brussels International Socialist Congress of 1891 pledged that May Day should be celebrated every year. By the time of its centenary, May Day qualified as an official holiday in more than 100 countries.

The holiday’s symbolism extends beyond the act of stopping work. “Spring holidays are profoundly rooted in the ritual cycle of the year in the temperate northern hemisphere,” observes Hobsbawm, “and indeed the month of May itself symbolizes the renewal of nature.” Flowers figured prominently in celebrations from the very start. Indeed, May Day celebrations of seasonal renewal happened long before an organized labor movement seized the day. Even then the day involved symbolism involving both economic class and seasonal renewal. For example, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, according to scholar Stephen Greenblatt, “on May Day people had long celebrated the legend of Robin Hood, with raucous, often bawdy rituals” involving dancing around a Maypole “decked with ribbons and garlands” and a young Queen of the May also decorated with flowers. One of the most popular May Day icons depicts a Phrygian bonnet-wearing girl amid garlands.

Before May Day blossomed internationally, Labor Day celebrations started inNew York City, gradually spreading to other areas. “Ironically, in the USA itself May Day was never to establish itself as it did elsewhere, if only because an increasingly official holiday of labour, Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was already in existence,” explains Hobsbawm. At that time, however, it did not exist as a holiday throughout the country. The Central Labor Union organized the first Labor Day in New Yorkon September 5, 1882. After celebrating it again on the same date the next year, the union picked the first weekday of the month as the time for the “workingmen’s holiday” in subsequent years and urged other cities to do so as well. Although the New York unionists’ creation effectively kept May Day from catching on in theUnited States, holiday imagery connects the city with the international festival: A German plaque commemorating the first May Day represents the Statue of Liberty on one side and Karl Marx on the other.

Early local Labor Day events included calls for the establishment of a national holiday, which happened in 1894, immediately after the movement suffered a shattering defeat. President Glover Cleveland signed the bill just days after the end of a massive strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois. He was responding to protests against his aggressive tactics to suppress what became called the “Debs Rebellion.” Eugene Debs led the American Railway Union, which had come into being less than a year before Pullmanworkers, angered both by severe wage cuts and by the firing of three men who had presented management with a list of grievances, put down their tools. Not only did they stop building Pullmansleeping cars; they and railroad workers around the country (against Debs’s advice) began a boycott of any railroad that continued to pull them, refusing to run any train with one attached. The boycott went into effect on June 25 and by the end of the month almost 125,000 workers joined it, affecting twenty railroads. “Across the nation the American Railway Union was so successful during the first week that the old Knights of Labor slogan, ‘An injury to one is the concern of all,’ seemed fulfilled, as yet another impressive display of labor unity spread throughout the country,” writes Nick Salvatore in Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Union members’ muscle-flexing aggravated and worried management, which aimed to dismantle Debs’s young union and its brand of militancy. The railroad corporations’ General Managers Association persuaded the federal government that the strike disrupted mail delivery and impeded interstate commerce. Judges issued an injunction against Debs and the union on these grounds and Cleveland (against Governor John Altgeld’s advice) agreed to send troops to enforce it. The troops arrived the evening before Independence Day.

When campaigning for the presidency in 1892, Cleveland had opposed the use of federal troops to squelch a strike that summer, one that ultimately saw private enforcers shooting strikers (with a few of their own being killed as well). After strikers took over the Carnegie steelworks in Homestead, Pennsylvania, the company hired “watchmen” from the Pinkerton Protective Patrol to wrest control back from the workers. Started as a private detective agency, the Pinkertons increasingly focused on protecting industry’s interests after the death of founder Allan Pinkerton, in 1884, when his son Robert took power. “Over two decades,” reports J. Anthony Lukas in Big Trouble, “the agency intervened in some seventy strikes, often with violent consequences,” as was the case inHomestead, where a gun fight between Pinkertons and strikers resulted in ten deaths and dozen of injuries.

Debs backed Cleveland then, encouraged by his position on the Carnegie strike, but the president’s move two years later spurred his radicalization. The strike destroyed his union, which, after membership plummeted, formally disbanded in 1897. Arrested on charges of conspiracy and contempt of court relating to the injunction, Debs later served a six-month sentence, during which (according to the legend Debs helped to cultivate) he converted to socialism. In the related trials, Clarence Darrow defended him, prompting the attorney’s lifelong commitment to the cause of organized labor. Roughly a decade later, Darrow would defend labor leaders accused of commissioning murder, including the secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners, William “Big Bill” Haywood, whom Lukas said “probably ranked with Eugene V. Debs – the lanky labor organizer form Indiana who now headed the Socialist Party of America – as the most feared radicals in the land.” Debs would ultimately run for president five times on the ticket of the party he helped to launch.

Beyond its impact on Debs’s political outlook and activity, thePullmanstrike was a pivotal historical event revealing great tensions in American society. Lukas calls it “the largest concerted labor action in the nation’s history.” Debs thought it was something even bigger than that. In his assessment,Cleveland’s decision to send troops changed the event from a strike against railroad corporations “into a conflict in which the organized forces of society and all the powers of the municipal, State and Federal governments were arraigned against us [i.e. workers].” It brought class struggle out into the open. TwoPullmanstrikers were shot to death by deputy marshals enforcing the will of the corporations. A desire to mollify workers outraged by his handling of the incidents outside Chicago certainly lay behind Cleveland’s signing on to the Labor Day holiday.

In effect, then, Labor Day became a holiday as a consequence of a labor movement setback. After the strike,Pullman employees agreed not to unionize. The destruction of his union prompted Debs to pursue leadership of a political movement that also ended in failure, whether measured in electoral success or in the fomenting of a revolution. The holiday endured, but not in anything like the form its early advocates envisioned.

The Pullman strike highlighted strife within the labor movement, dramatically displaying competing conceptions of its aims and methods as represented by Debs and his rival Samuel Gompers. “One of American history’s grandest ironies is the role of labor leaders: through their lives and careers can be traced the fascinating pursuit of a perennial ideal, international solidarity for working class advancement and a cooperative society – thrown in reverse,” Paul Buhle writes in Taking Care of Business. He regards Samuel Gompers as precisely such a figure. Buhle calls Gompers the principal architect of “business unionism,” in which the organizations operate just like corporations, including the bestowal of perks for executives, with the goal of labor’s emancipation forgotten. Gompers opposed the formation of Debs’s American Railway Union, calling it “the disruptive movement.” Preferring stability, Gompers, who founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886, aimed to organize the movement on business principles and concentrated on security for skilled workers. Consequently, the AFL “was sometimes regarded as a league of petit-bourgeois tradesmen seeking to protect their status from challenges by the industrialized masses,” says Lukas.

Debs aligned himself with the very masses Gompers disdained. “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free,” he proclaimed after being convicted in 1918 of violating the Espionage Act by speaking in support of jailed opponents of U.S. intervention in World War I. (President Warren Harding pardoned Debs on Christmas Day 1921.) Debs conceived of unions as having a much greater purpose than attaining higher pay for certain skilled workers. He believed the organization of unions on an industrial basis rather than as separate trades or crafts gave all workers greater strength. He had aimed to organize all railroad workers because he saw earlier strikes fail due to rivalries between or lack of cooperation among various railroad craft unions. He viewed Gompers as a traitor to the labor movement cause and referred to the AFL as a group of “labor-dividing-and-corruption-breeding craft unions.” (Just as Gompers refused to back the American Railway Union, he later conflicted with the Western Federation of Miners, and when its president visited Debs soon before the union withdrew from the AFL, the two bonded over their mutual Gompers-related grievances, according to Lukas.) Debs regarded unions as agents for the complete transformation of society, not as mere special interest groups existing within and enforcing hierarchical social structures.

In other historical ironies, it was the AFL that organized the demonstration that ended up determining the date of the worldwide workers’ holiday in 1890, and, afterPullman, industrial unions like the American Railway Union foundered or disintegrated, while the AFL carried on using the business unionism model.

Deep divides over the meaning of the labor movement and its symbolic expression also emerged in Labor Day activities. SomeNew Yorkunions viewed with ambivalence the routine of marching along Fifth Avenue, with what they interpreted as its opulent displays of capitalists’ wealth. Early in the twentieth century, certain labor organizations refused to join in the parade along the “avenue of enemies.” One militant proposed a “charge up Fifth Avenuewith axes and swords.” Some even encouraged May Day marches as alternatives to Labor Day traditions. At one, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as president of the Socialistic Women of Greater New York, addressed demonstrators inUnion Square, saying, “We have not marched today as labor does on Labor Day. Then it goes up Fifth Avenueand is reviewed like so many cattle by the forces of capital. Today we review ourselves and note our own power.”

These activists sought to celebrate a power with a material rather than spiritual foundation. While people around the world have numerous religious holidays in common, non-religious ones have not been so widely adopted. May Day provided an exception. Hobsbawm says it “is perhaps the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar.”

Nevertheless, the holiday does have a spiritual side, and did so from the start. Hobsbawm recognizes this: “The similarity of the new socialist movement to a religious movement, even, in the first heady years of May Day, to a religious revival movement with messianic expectations was patent.” Italian socialists called the new holiday “the workers’ Easter.” A Belgian pamphlet containing what the historian dubs a May Day sermon bears epigraphs attributed to both Marx and Jesus.

Although Labor Day, like May Day, is a worldly holiday, religion infiltrated it early on. Indeed, if thePullmanstrike precipitated the formalization of the secular holiday, the event did have distinct religious overtones. Debs asserted that the workers withholding their labor in support ofPullmanemployees “advocated and practiced the Christ-like virtue of sympathy.” Debs was not shy about assuming something of a messianic role. His biographer likens Debs’s style of speaking to preaching. Salvatore also describes the railroad workers who voted to boycottPullmancars in an effort to combat corporate power as holding their convictions with “religious fervor.” Further, “messianic expectations” could be observed in the 100,000 supporters chanting “Debs, Debs, Debs” who greeted him when he left theWoodstock,Illinois, jail. Clarence Darrow described him as possessing the very qualities Debs viewed as Christ-like. The lawyer said: “There may have lived sometime, somewhere a kindlier, gentler, more generous man than Eugene Victor Debs, but I have never known him.” Like the May Day proponents who invoked Jesus in their literature, Debs too relied on scripture, attributing competition to Cain in contradiction to the teaching of Christ, for instance. His rival’s organization also found religion in labor’s cause. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor declared the Sunday preceding the holiday “Labor Sunday,” which it devoted to the spiritual side of the movement. A century later, the AFL-CIO’s website included a page dedicated to “Labor in the Pulpits,” with information on the link between faith and workers’ rights.

The story of Debs’s “conversion” to socialism also entails religious components. Salvatore questions the idea of his having immediately and surely realized the flaws of capitalism and the solution of socialism and the narrative’s parallel to Saul’s sudden insight on the road to Damascus. He also recognizes that Debs himself promoted the legend. Many years after the strike, Debs claimed he knew little of socialism prior to Pullmanbut had been “baptized in Socialism in the roar of conflict … in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.” In jail, he said, he studied Marx and others and came out a completely new person. Debs, Salvatore insists, never really followed any orthodox socialist theory and owed much of his thinking to Jefferson and Lincoln rather than Marx. He opened his first speech after walking out of jail in Illinois by referring to the Declaration of Independence, not The Communist Manifesto. Still, the legend of a jailhouse conversion and Debs’s own commitment to it point to what Salvatore calls the “religious underpinnings of American culture” in his thought. Although the labor movement struggled to improve conditions in this world, it borrowed figures of speech related to otherworldly dreams. It adapted symbols and rhetorical gestures that many, including Debs, believed ennobled the cause, lending it a grandeur and resonance they could not otherwise find language to articulate.

Since the choice of time for a festival has great symbolic import, the suggestiveness of picking a fall day instead of a one in spring is especially striking, hinting at decline and decay from the very beginning of the holiday’s observance. The New York Central Labor Council in 2007 cancelled the Labor Day Parade, citing small attendance by participants as well as spectators. Years earlier, the body shifted the parade from Labor Day itself to the following weekend, leaving union members free to do something more appealing with their summer-ending three-day weekend. A century and a quarter after workers took unpaid time off their jobs to insist on the recognition of their holiday, their descendants decided they could dispense with the parade exhibiting “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” called for in the first proposal for Labor Day. They would hold on to the time for holiday festivities, but drop the class assertion. Perhaps they had little choice. Far from signaling the achievement of the post-emancipation “good life,” the decision reflected the diminished condition of organized labor in the United States, where union membership fell from almost 50 percent in the 1950s to about 12 percent by 2007. According to The Chief, the civil service employees’ newspaper, some officials expressed “relief” over the cancellation, saying the parade “had felt more like an annoying family obligation than a celebration of workers’ power” and conceding that it no longer served to display working-class solidarity or strength. The muscle that worried management at the end of the nineteenth century had atrophied by the early twenty-first. Although no parade crept down Fifth Avenue, the Labor Day mass celebration proceeded as usual at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

The history of Labor Day, in addition to involving a surplus of ironies, also disproves an oft spoken cliché. In 1912 (the year Debs won nearly one million votes in his run for the presidency), Darrow spoke inSan Franciscoon Labor Day. He said it was the first time he’d marched in a parade and that he did not care for it. It made him tired. He disliked walking in the dust but did not want to ride while others walked. His biographers, Arthur and Lila Weinberg, say he was joking. Even so, he hints at what the fate of the holiday inNew York City confirms. Not everyone loves a parade.


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