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Labor Day isn’t what it used to be

Labor Day isn’t what it used to be

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This is the second of a two-part editorial. See the Friday, Sept. 4 edition of The Franklin News-Post for part one.

So why do other countries celebrate in May and we celebrate in September? The Central Labor Union of New York first proposed a Labor Day — with a September date — in 1882. Other labor activists pushed for May. May 1 became a politically charged date — it was the date in 1886 that the American Federation of Labor had set as a deadline for adoption of an eight-hour day, and it was close to the date of the bloody Haymarket Riot for labor rights on May 4, 1886, in Chicago. It was because of the political connotations with May 1 that President Grover Cleveland decided a September date for Labor Day was a more palatable option — and perhaps why Americans today see Labor Day as a three-day holiday weekend and not a call for marching in the streets. Cleveland was fine with appeasing workers who might also be voters, but he didn’t want to give credence to a labor movement that was seen then as a front for socialists and anarchists.

Matthew McGuire, the New Jersey machinist credited with being the first to propose a Labor Day to the Central Labor Union, really was a socialist. In 1896, he was the vice presidential candidate for the Socialist Labor Party of America. That party won 0.2% of the vote nationwide. Virginia was the only southern state where the party made the ballot; just 108 Virginians checked the socialist box that year. McGuire and presidential candidate Charles Matchett, a New York electrician, took a very doctrinaire view of socialism, too. In true Marxist fashion, they advocated government takeover of “the railroads, canals, telegraphs, telephones and all other means of public transportation and communication” and government programs to hire the unemployed. So you can think of it this way: When you celebrate Labor Day, you’re really celebrating an idea first proposed by socialists. For the record, the Socialist Labor Party platform that year also backed women’s suffrage, equal pay for women, an end to child labor, free public schools for students up to age 14, the income tax, the estate tax and “the scientific management of forests.” Thought experiment: Can you pick and choose which parts of 19th century socialism you want to embrace?

Thirty states recognized a Labor Day before there was a federal Labor Day recognized in 1894. The first state to adopt a Labor Day was Oregon, in 1887. The western states have historically been where many social and political innovations in the United States have begun. This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote — women’s suffrage began as a western movement. The first state to give women the right to vote was Wyoming. Likewise, this year’s big election controversy — voting by mail — began in Oregon and is most popular in the west. Politically, the west has been our great incubator of new ideas. Labor Day is an easy example.

So no, Labor Day isn’t what it used to be. Then again, it wasn’t what its socialist proponents originally intended it to be, either.

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