Labor Day always makes me sad, even though it’s the biggest party of the year in my little town. We have a parade, a carnival, a weekend-long concert, and a beauty pageant. High points for me are the funnel cake and the PTA book sale.

Still, the day signifies getting back to work, “buckling down,” as my father used to say. Even though I do not officially “work” these days, I have to go back to school. My endless summer road trips and extended stays in New Hampshire are coming to an end. Back to schedules and lists of things to do and packed calendars.

Today, though, I want to look beyond my own self-absorbed little nose and remember what Labor Day is all about.

The Sad Truth

A Risky Parade

The first Labor Day on September 5, 1882 was a risky proposition. Organized by the Central Labor Union, ten thousand men left their jobs without permission and staged a parade up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.  Peter McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, one of the early proponents of an eight-hour workday, gave a rabble-rousing speech and called on America to honor the industrial spirit with a special holiday – to give workers a day of recognition on par with religious, military, and civic holidays.

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 - February 18, ...

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 – February 18, 1906)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

McGuire said that early September was a pleasant time of year, a perfect time to “observe a festive day during which a parade through the streets of the city would permit public tribute to American industry.”

The marchers had a picnic and then an evening dance and fireworks. They didn’t lose their jobs, and they had so much fun that they continued the tradition for years. Finally in 1887, Oregon became the first state to establish Labor Day, and thirty other states and D.C. soon followed.

The U.S. Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, celebrating “the joint partnership of capital and labor.” It remains a uniquely American holiday.

Thanks to Our Union Friends!

These aren’t very good days for labor unions – only about 11% of American workers are union members, down from more than 20% in 1983.

I could go off, here, ranting about the way Wal-Mart treats its workers or about the attempts to bust unions in certain states (Ohio comes to mind) or about how trade agreements can really screw American workers. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll just point out that union members have median weekly earnings of $943 — $49,036 a year –while nonunion workers make just $742 a week, or $38,584 a year.

So here’s a shout out to union members and organizers – thanks for the weekend, thanks for the eight-hour workday, thanks for overtime, thanks for vacations and paid sick leave; and thanks for parades!

A special thanks to my friend Jane Perkins who was an early pioneer in Blue-Green alliance efforts to bring environmental concerns and labor concerns together. Keep marching, girl!

Jane Perkins

Jane Perkins

And because no holiday is complete without Anne Lamott, here’s a piece she wrote about Labor Day a few years ago.

Happy Labor Day!