Many of the national holidays we observe in the United States have a patriotic element. Memorial Day honors lost veterans, Independence Day the birth of our nation. We celebrate Flag Day, Presidents’ Day, Veterans’ Day. Labor . .Day, however, celebrates the working class.
There is debate as to who first proposed a day set aside to honor America’s laborers. Some credit Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Others give the distinction to Matthew Maguire, a machinist and secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. Regardless of who first conceived of the holiday, it was the Central Labor Union who adopted a Labor Day proposal and planned festivities for the day. On September 5, 1882, the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City.
More than one hundred years later, we are still honoring the toils and sacrifices of our labor force. There will be parades and picnics, festivals and fun.
And then it’s back to work.
I had a productive week last week. And have a huge workload waiting for me. Instead of working on Labor Day, though, I’m taking a break and relaxing with my family. With school in session and the demands my husband’s job place on him, it’s virtually unheard of for all four of us to be home on a weekday. So we’re going to make the most of it.
If you find yourself with some down time this Labor Day, maybe you’d like to read some classic literature depicting the lives of the working class.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a story of tenant farmers who lose everything during the Great Depression and set out for California in search of a livelihood, and more importantly, in search of their dignity. After suffering several losses on the way, they arrive out west only to discover there is little work, and even fewer rights for laborers. The story ends by showing how the family functions in the face of adversity.
Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis, is a portrait of the industrial city and the businessman. The novel’s main character is described by The 1930 Nobel Prize committee as “the ideal of an American popular hero of the middle-class. The relativity of business morals as well as private rules of conduct is for him an accepted article of faith, and without hesitation he considers it God’s purpose that man should work, increase his income, and enjoy modern improvements.” The protagonist is a realtor who becomes disillusioned with his life and seeks to improve his lot through a series of relationships and travels. In the end, he returns to the life that he thought was unsatisfying.
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, is a story of the hard-working immigrant and his sacrifices while looking to achieve the American Dream. It focuses on two major social classes: the upper class, who are comfortable and corrupt, and the working class, who are impoverished and hopeless. The main character hopes to care for his whole family, but as working conditions decay, they are all forced into labor. The combination of the upper class abusing their power and a series of accidents and tragedies lead to the main character’s ruination. Desperate to turn things around, he leaves Chicago as a hobo, but finds things no better on the farms where he tries to eke out a living. He returns to Chicago and is enticed by the socialist movement. He eventually is employed by a socialist and resumes supporting his extended family, although they’ve all undergone significant change.
Are you spending the day with one of these books, or something else you’ve been waiting to get time to read? Will you be watching a movie, swimming, or picnicking? Something else, perhaps something unusual? I’d love to hear how you’re spending the day. Why don’t you share your plans below?
And Happy Labor Day!