Labor Day is very different today than it was in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law declaring it a national holiday. It was a time of great unrest with many Americans working seven days a week, 12 hours a day in low paying jobs. Children worked on farms, but also in mines and factories.
Unions had been formed, but had limited success in correcting the harsh, unsafe conditions. One goal was to have an eight hour workday, something that seems almost quaint in today’s workplace.
The labor unrest hit a peak in 1894 during the Pullman strike which disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest. The federal government eventually stepped in with an injunction and used federal troops to break the strike.
The strike came about when George Pullman, the owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company lowered wages for his factory workers. However, he did not lower the rents in the housing he provided for the workers in the company town.
When the workers complained, Pullman simply fired them. The Pullman workers decided to strike. The strike spread to the American Railway Union who refused to handle any Pullman cars This resulted in passenger and freight traffic almost coming to a complete stop around Chicago.
Many historians believe that President Cleveland declared the holiday because he was afraid of losing the support of working-class voters.
Today, Labor Day still recognizes the contributions and achievements of the American worker, but is has become a much broader holiday. It symbolizes the end of Summer for many Americans and is often celebrated with barbeques, parades and athletic events.
For many parts of the country, Labor Day signaled the beginning of the school year. Crops were close to being harvested and the weather was moderating so schoolchildren could attend classes in the school classrooms that had no air-conditioning.
In my own life, Labor Day was often the busiest day of the year at the family’s peanut buying points since children were very involved in the harvesting process. That also meant that the days at Compass Lake had ended since the water would be too cold to swim by the end of the peanut harvest season.
Today, we also celebrate Labor Day weekend as the true beginning of the college football season. For that reason alone, Labor Day remains a very popular holiday across the country. Southerners, in particular, are likely to be found in their school colors cooking on the grill and cheering their team on to victory.
Of course, like many other holidays, it has been taken over by marketing people promoting it as the biggest sale of the year, at least until Thanksgiving and Christmas.
One final tradition is the unofficial rule on not wearing white after Labor Day. Like many traditions, no one really knows how it began. Some believe white was just a more summery color and reflected the heat better. Others believed the rule was created by wealthy Summer vacationers who wore white before returning to their life in the city.
As for me, I believe it was just a ploy by the clothing manufacturers and department stores to encourage you to buy two sets of clothes during the year.
Whatever the reason you celebrate Labor Day, here is to the approaching end of the Dog Days of Summer, the promise of crisp, cool Fall days, and the winning record of your favorite college team. It’s about time.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]