I decided to find out if people I know knew the real meaning of Labor Day.
I must embarrassingly admit, I didn’t know its complicated roots. Well, maybe once in 1967 when Mr. Sheldon, my history teacher at South High School, gave us his Labor Day lessons. Rita Lozano, my secret crush since Casa Loma Elementary School, was a big distraction in class and diverted my attention from social studies to how I was going to eventually marry her. Never happened, nor did remembering Mr. Sheldon’s Labor Day lesson.
To try to validate my own historical inadequacies and give Labor Day its proper credit, I completed my own unscientific survey with family and close friends.
My small circle of friends did not include history teachers, labor representatives, elected officials, lobbyists, or anyone connected in any way to unions. I even asked the young barista at Dutch Bros. Coffee.
I asked this simple question: “What does Labor Day mean to you?”
Without exception, their first reaction was a quizzical Scooby Doo tilt of the head with a “Ruh-roh” response. Here is a sample of their responses:
“It has something to do with labor.”
“It means we get a three-day weekend.”
"Summer vacations are ending.”
I blame myself for not edumacating my children more on Labor Day, its significance toward workers' rights and why it’s such an important day in the history of the United States. Like many freedoms and privileges we now enjoy, Labor Day’s birth and importance can easily be lost in the cascade of many national holidays.
With the tip of the hat to Mr. Sheldon, God rest his soul, I share this unofficial shortened history lesson.
According to Dictionary.com, “The first Labor Day celebration took place in New York City on September 5, 1882. About 10,000 union workers marched in a parade to honor American workers, who at the time were without the labor laws now taken for granted.” This was the height of the industrial revolution where the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week to eke out a basic living."
According to History.com, “In the wake of a massive unrest and in an attempt to repair ties with American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.”
The path of how Labor Day became a national “working man’s holiday” is a study in political maneuvering, boycotts, strikes and unfortunate deaths. But the path also created many workers' rights and freedoms many of us now enjoy and take for granted.
Here is what Labor Day means to me.
When I think of Labor Day, I automatically think of my maternal Grandma. She gave up her life to come live with us to help my dad raise me and my seven brothers and sisters. Time off for her was spending the evening hand-watering our front yard while smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette.
I think of my dad, a carpet installer whose regular days were 10 to 12 hours long and whose idea of a relaxing was sitting in his lawn chair and having a Coors while watching us play baseball in our backyard with our neighborhood friends.
I also think of farmworkers who we casually see in the strawberry fields, orange trees, and grape vineyards, where 80 percent to 90 percent of the crop is hand-harvested in the hottest heat of summer and the coldest winter days. I think of gardeners, construction workers, street pavers, cement masons and concrete finishers, and anyone who works outside in our oftentimes oppressive climate.
There are so many more I appreciate and could list.
It quietly amuses me when I hear someone complain about how hot it is when they have to walk from their air-conditioned house to their air-conditioned car, to their air-conditioned office, back to their air-conditioned car and back to their air-conditioned home. Really?
Whatever Labor Day means to you, whether it’s enjoying your barbecues, spending time with family and friends, or just chilling alone at home, let’s give thanks to all past and present who have labored to make our country the envy of so many.