I never used to notice Labor Day. Labor Day just meant an extra day without classes (which I usually didn't remember until Friday afternoon). Sometimes I'd go to the bank only to realize, Crap, it's Labor Day. And then there was that whole thing about wearing white.
When I started my retail job and had to work on national holidays, I didn't mind at first, since I'd never been much for celebrating most of the national holidays. My only qualm was the huge influx of customers on holidays. I also realized I was hardly visiting my family anymore. Then one day, an old man came in the shop and thanked me for working on Labor Day. He was one of only a few people to ever thank me for working on a holiday.
"Used to, no one worked on Labor Day," he explained. "Everything was closed. You couldn't go out to eat, or go to the store."
And I found myself thinking, That sounds great. What happened to that Utopian place where everyone got a day off, not just the people with 9-5 office jobs? Don't I have as much of a right to a day off as the rest of the country? I can understand some people working holidays--you know, doctors, firemen, people who save lives. But there's only one reason to make people with service jobs work holidays: money. While my salaried managers, who worked until 4:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, took national holidays off, my co-workers and I had our most hectic workdays, making sure hotel guests had a nice holiday with their families, while our own families had a holiday without us. For the first time, I became aware of a growing class divide in this country.
This year, in honor of finally having Labor Day off again, I did some Wikipedia research to see what I'd been missing. Long story short, Labor Day was made a national holiday to appease union workers in various industries who had been striking nationwide. Supposedly, it's in honor of the Pullman Strike that began in May 1894; as far as I can tell, that strike just happened to exemplify a general mood in the country at the time. Basically, rail workers responded to overly-demanding work schedules and cuts in pay by refusing to work and damaging quite a lot of company property. In the end, President Grover Cleveland sided with the employers and called in the military, at which point strikers were killed and injured. Cleveland quickly realized what a bad PR move that was, and Labor Day was born.
Labor Day was intended to be a holiday for the working class, so they could get some rest. Today, Labor Day is a day when a good chunk of the working class... is working. Meanwhile, the upper class (most likely, the employers) takes a pleasant beach vacation.
The Pullman Strike happened in a turbulent time. However, I can't help but think what a great era it ushered in. In the decades following the Pullman Strike, my great-grandfather had a railroad job in South Alabama. The pension from that job supported him and his family until he died last year, and still supports my great-grandmother, who turned 93 in July. I doubt my fiance and I will be able to rely on anything like that when we're older. My grandfather bought a home and paid it off with his own money. Sometimes I wonder if Ari and I will be able to do that, either. These days, my dad wonders if he'll be able to retire at all, and how he'll support himself if and when that happens. He's held his job for over 25 years, but his company has been sold umpteen times, and with each regime change, his retirement has dwindled. He's even been laid off and then re-hired several times.
When did the employers gain the upper hand again? When did businesses start staying open for Labor Day? People would be angry if their employer, or their child's school, stopped observing national holidays, but no one complains if a restaurant or retail store is still operating. But those businesses are operated by human beings, too, no less than any other place of work. When did we start looking down on each other? The middle class is disappearing again after a short existence of about 50 years. Let's hope we end up on the lucky side of the class divide.
Recommended reading with this post: Happy F*ckin' Labor Day by Michael Moore