It’s Time to Take Back Labor Day

Happy Labor Day: America’s most overlooked major holiday.

It’s understandable why so many people view Labor Day as not much more than day off from work and an excuse to have a cookout. Generally speaking Labor Day is a reflective holiday, not a celebratory one, and if a holiday doesn’t involve gifts, celebrations or specific, defined acts like putting flowers on a grave, people tend to have a hard time knowing what to do about it. 

However it’s also overlooked by political design. Indeed, the obliteration and demonization of the labor movement is one of the most successful political operations of the past 40 years.

The major components of this operation have been the wholesale scaling back of workers’ rights, benefits and protections and the claiming of a greater and greater cut of revenues by ownership over the past several decades. Dealing with that remains the most pressing issue for workers going forward, obviously. It’s worth noting, however, that obliterating the very history of the labor movement in the United States has been a key part of that as well.

Even most of those who stop for a moment to acknowledge Labor Day are likely unaware that its institution was something of a cynical, political act, taken by politicians and business owners in order to appease workers they had just murdered and brutalized. It was also established in September in order to separate it from the larger international workers’ day of May 1. The holiday itself was something of an apology, but also a means of blunting the edge of the labor movement. Those who see workers as the enemy as opposed to a critical part of the American fabric are quite happy that most of us think of today as a day to fire up the grill and go to the pool as opposed to thinking about America’s workers. They have made it a point to do that, in fact, and they have been wildly successful in doing so. 

Not only does organized labor makes up a smaller portion of the workforce than it ever has, and not only do workers suffer worse conditions than they have in decades, but even pointing this out has come to be seen as somehow subversive. Even a great many of the people who do the working in this country have bought in to the notion — propagated by those who profit from labor — that unions are tools of the communists and giving any lip service to the rights of workers is a suspect and even un-American pursuit. Good, secure jobs with good pay and benefits have come to be seen as rare luxuries for which it is rude to ask, let alone expect. What’s worse: many workers themselves have adopted the language of the rich and powerful in this regard, having been convinced that their need to hustle harder than they used to in order to make less in real dollars than they used to is somehow a good thing.

I’m not sure what to do about that, as it’s a massive problem with many causes and calls for a host of actions in response to remedy it. But in the meantime, we should do whatever we can to at least commemorate and acknowledge a national holiday devoted to laborers in at least close to the same way in which we mothers on Mothers Day, fathers on Fathers Day, our loved ones on Valentine’s Day, our veterans on Veterans Day and those who have died for our country on Memorial Day.

And make no mistake: workers have died for our country too. People die on the job every day and you likely cross a bridge, enter a building or drive on a road that was paid for, in part, by workers’ lives every day. People have likewise died in the name of worker’s rights and in the name of keeping more people from dying on the job. Beyond all of that, labor built this country. The labor movement has saved lives that would have been lost and has elevated the standard of living of families. Odds are that, whether you accept it or not, labor and workers in your own family allowed you to get where you are now.

It’s worth a day of remembrance, reverence and reflection, at the very least. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.