Paul Jacob

September 2, 2012

Monday is Labor Day, a day chosen by President Grover Cleveland to celebrate workers’ contributions to American economic and social life. The early September date got the nod expressly to derail those radical syndicalist, communist, and anarchist agitators who pushed May Day as their day to rally the proletariat. Labor Day was a frank attempt to mainstream the labor movement.

Nowadays it means next to nothing, as near as I can make out. Some folks used to take it seriously as a holiday. Today, though, we celebrate “labor” not only by not working, but by traveling, picnicking, attending sports events, and partying in general. It really has nothing to do with honoring a sector of economic life. It’s all about fun, and about giving an extra day of paid leave for public employees and unionized workers . . . and many, many others.

Since it means so little now, it’s probably worth reminding ourselves why it once meant so much — or at least enough to create an “alternate” and “official” celebratory day.

Once upon a time, labor was associated with slavery, and even in the “free labor” market, hiring someone amounted to hiring an inferior. Abuse of workers was not uncommon enough, even though it was often not as bad as depicted in some of the literature of the day.

Like today, the more skilled, the more valuable the worker — that is, the harder to replace the worker, and the more the worker contributed — the better that worker was treated. But a certain callous disregard for freely contracted labor aroused a great deal of animosity from laborers towards employers. This was especially evident during the days of slavery in the South, where slaves were often treated better than hired hands. Why? Because a slave amounted to capital, and possessed capital value — slaves could be resold. The most dangerous work of unloading cotton bales, for instance, usually went to Irish workers, not black slaves. The plantation owner did not care if an Irishman died. The free Irish were expendable, the slaves were not.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.