One of the things the British get right is leaving the long weekends that begin and end summer without names weighed down with significance.
Over there they’re called “bank holidays,” a generic term simply meaning a long weekend with Monday off.
We insist on calling the summer kickoff Memorial Day, which has recovered some of its original meaning because many of us remember Americans for their service and sacrifice in the misguided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By remembering them, our thoughts turn again to the veterans of World War II, Vietnam, Korea and the first Gulf War. So better Memorial Day than a “bank holiday.”
But Labor Day long ago lost its original meaning.
The first Monday in September was earmarked Labor Day as an election year appeasement by President Grover Cleveland. During the Great Depression of 1893, a strike by Pullman railroad car workers in Chicago went national and took 12,000 federal troops to break it. The leaders went to federal prison and the group spearheading the strike, the American Railway Union, was disbanded and most of the other industrial workers’ unions were done in.
But protests still boiled, and soon after the bloody end of the strike, Congress passed legislation and President Cleveland signed Labor Day into law to cool things off. It wasn’t looked at as just a paid holiday, but as a sort of victory, and, as one labor leader said, a day when workers’ “rights and wrongs would be discussed.”
It was an early example of something created out of a need for good PR that has since died along with the once-essential movement that produced it.
Unions went into hibernation after the Pullman strike, but roared back during the Great Depression II beginning in 1929. Organization and collective bargaining thrived for several generations, contributing to one of history’s triumphs: the rapid and extensive expansion of the American middle class. In the 1950s, 50 percent of American workers held union cards. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 11.8 percent of workers are unionized.
With fast food and big box workers beginning to make noise about organizing for better pay, it’s important to remember that most of the employees aren’t kids but people trying to support families. The U.S. Labor Department found the median age of fast food employees is over 28 and those working in Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and other big boxes is over 30.
The weekend marker for the end of summer is a special day for Islanders. There’s no time, really, to reflect on summer’s passing because Labor Day is in many ways the opening gun for another race, to get the kids ready for school — and face the shopping that requires — to think of closing houses for our summer residents, and for those in seasonal businesses, to balance some books and map strategies for fall and winter.
It should also be a time to remember what the day was named for, and to understand what it took to achieve the quality of life we all have.