How did you spend this Labor Day weekend? If you joined friends and family at an end-of-summer barbecue and enjoyed a beer or two, you actually may not be far off from the origins of the holiday.
The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York City on September 5, 1882. A rather unfavorable description of the event appeared later that week in the New-York Tribune. The reporter noted wryly that, for participants in a labor demonstration, the laborers in question didn’t seem very downtrodden.
There was nothing in the appearance of the men to indicate that they were suffering for good clothes or were weak from long famishing. They were not only neatly and comfortably, but in many cases rather extravagantly dressed. And they not only marched briskly in the sun for many miles, but a great multitude of them danced briskly and listened to rather dull speeches for the better part of the afternoon. There was no bread, but plenty of beer, provided for them, and they had change to pay for it. The gathering had none of the aspects of a bread riot, but every semblance of a picnic or political barbecue. . .
The inscriptions on the banners can scarcely be said to represent truthfully the sentiments prevailing among honest workingmen. Some of them were rather old and familiar aphorisms; others were propositions which nobody ever thought of disputing; while nearly all were political, and a majority were decidedly demogogical.
Though “political barbecues” are sadly not common today, the types of the slogans used by the marchers don’t sound so different from the empty catch-phrases and memes that dominate today's political demonstrations and social media campaigns.
Clearly, as a contemporary secular holiday, Labor Day doesn’t have the rich history or deeply significant rituals of holy days like Easter, Rosh Hashanah, or Ramadan. Still, even if we reject its socialist underpinnings, its history gives us an important opportunity to reflect not only on the meaning of our work but also on how we choose to spend our leisure time.
The History of Labor Day
The labor movement of the late 1800s was dominated by misguided ideology, but it was responding to real injustices and hardships. Although the first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882, it was only recognized as a national holiday in 1894—an election year—in a conciliatory move by President Grover Cleveland in the wake of the federal government’s violent role in breaking a nationwide strike of railroad workers led by a young Eugene V. Debs.
The “Pullman strike” started in Pullman, Illinois, a utopian industrial town dreamed up by George Pullman, president of Pullman’s Palace Car Company. The town was inhabited by employees who manufactured Pullman’s signature railroad sleeping cars and lived in company-owned homes. After an economic downturn, the company laid off large numbers of workers and slashed wages without decreasing rent or working hours. The strike began peacefully, but it eventually escalated into violent and destructive riots. These were ultimately suppressed by national guardsmen, who killed somewhere between four and forty people.
The complicated history and impact of the strike are worth studying in more detail than I can give here. The effort was ultimately unsuccessful, landing Debs in prison and turning public sympathies against the Pullman workers and the labor movement in general. In the end, many of the demands of the labor movement were not fulfilled until the economic boom of the World War II era.
Today, the vast majority of Americans enjoy better working conditions and more leisure time than the early members of the labor movement could have dreamed of. Though it’s difficult to get accurate numbers, it is estimated that the average manufacturing worker worked seventy hours a week in 1830, and around sixty hours a week in 1880. By contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in July 2017 that the average employee in manufacturing worked about forty-one hours a week. Across all private sector non-farm jobs, the average was less than thirty-five hours. We seem to have achieved the goal summed up by the American Federation of Labor’s nineteenth-century slogan: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”
But that’s the question, isn’t it? (Apart from how many of us actually get eight hours of rest each night . . .) What do we choose to do with the unprecedented amount of leisure time available to us?
For What We Will
Today, technology continues to decrease the need for manual labor, streamlining our everyday tasks. As the mother of two babies under two years old, I am thankful for the internet, which allows me to do most of my work from home. I am able to continue to do meaningful work without sacrificing too much of my time with my family. To juggle all of my responsibilities, I find myself taking advantage of all kinds of time-saving services that allow me to acquire the things my family needs—and things we simply want—more and more easily, from Amazon’s one-click ordering and free two-day shipping to Walmart’s grocery pick-up service, which allows me to grocery shop from my phone and have food deposited into my car without ever having to unclip my children from their car seats. Suffice to say, I’m thankful for technology.
Yet these advances are not purely positive. As acquiring material goods and showcasing them on social media becomes easier and easier, it becomes more and more tempting to define ourselves as consumers, mistaking what we own for who we are. As daily tasks become more and more automated, we have to spend less and less time on them. But what do we do with the time we save?
Hopefully, we spend a good portion of that time away from screens, interacting with the people we love, nurturing our families, and building strong local communities. Attending religious services and volunteering for various ministries, taking part in town and city events, volunteering at local nursing homes or soup kitchens, bringing meals to friends who are ill or who have recently had a new baby, hosting dinner parties—all of these things are worthy uses of our time. It’s all too easy to neglect the real work of building connections with the flesh-and-blood people who surround us when we could spend our days scrolling through Instagram or Facebook instead. Of course, it’s not that social media or smartphones are bad—it’s just that we must exercise constant self-control if we are to use them well and integrate them into a balanced and humane life.
The Future of Public Discourse
Part of living such a good life is developing our intellects. We are dependent rational animals, after all. We must seek out reading material and conversation partners who will challenge us to use our rational faculties. We need to take the time to think deeply—to stop and consider the assumptions underlying our kneejerk reactions, considering opposing viewpoints and either modifying our own positions or understanding better our reasons for believing what we do. This practice helps us clarify our thoughts, making us more able to explain and argue for what is good and true.
This kind of thinking compels us to ask ourselves whether we need to change our daily habits in order to live in accordance with what is right. It helps us to live up to our responsibilities to ourselves and to our spouses, parents, children, friends, fellow citizens, and God. Sometimes those responsibilities are tangible and immediate, whether that’s changing your child’s diaper or rescuing fellow citizens from a flood and letting them take shelter in your furniture store. But sometimes we have the responsibility to do slower, more intellectual work.
That’s where Public Discourse comes in. Our hope is that you will use fifteen or twenty minutes out of your eight hours of “doing what you will” to read our articles. Perhaps you might devote a little more time to thinking through their implications and discussing the questions they raise with your friends, colleagues, and family, whether in person or via social media.
It is a privilege to work for Public Discourse. If you value the work that we do, please donate to Public Discourse today. And, more importantly, please keep reading, sharing, and discussing the ideas you encounter here.
Serena Sigillito is managing editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute. She holds a BA from the University of Dallas and an MA from the Catholic University of America.