Labor Day’s message: Remember day’s history while resting

A late summer afternoon unfolded lazily on the stream bank.

While little children splashed in the shallows of Spring Creek, mothers sat and chatted, keeping an eye on the gleeful explorers.

Time seemed to stand still in Spring Creek Park, but the minutes flowed as surely as the water toward the unofficial end of the season: a murky holiday.

Labor Day has come to mean a day off for many Americans, but certainly not all, as police, retail and food service employees, air traffic controllers and others in a host of professions know full well.

The day also traditionally marks the imminent arrival of school, though plenty of districts now start earlier.

Whether you’re at work or home, in class already or dreading the thought, the holiday serves mainly as a bridge between summer’s torpid rhythms and fall’s hustle and bustle.

But how many of us really know why we have the day?

When asked, a couple of the Spring Creek Park mothers — who’re very familiar with both labor and tiring jobs — didn’t, probably like most Americans.

“People will be relaxing and regrouping for fall, but I don’t know the history,” said Marie Yearick, of Spring Mills, at the park with her daughter and two of her grandchildren.

Doug Allen has the story. It’s his job, after all.

Allen, a professor in Penn State’s School of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, teaches about the American labor movement, drawing on his firsthand experience with unions.

After graduating from the university in 1973 and playing two seasons in the National Football League, he spent 40 years working for the NFL Players Association, the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations and the Screen Actors Guild.

Labor Day, Allen said, likely originated with an association of New York City craft unions called the Central Labor Union and its tribute to working people and their contributions to the nation. The federal Department of Labor agrees.

According to the department, as the labor movement gained steam nationwide, the union in early September 1882 held a city parade with 10,000 marchers and a daylong festival for workers, complete with speeches, picnics and no shortage of beer.

Newspapers pronounced the day a success, and the union secretary, a machinist named Matthew Maguire, called for one day a year to be designated Labor Day.

Some believe he was beaten to the punch by Peter McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and the co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Earlier, McGuire had suggested a day for workers, but whatever the case, it’s clear that the Central Labor Union’s event spawned interest.

“It caught on with the rest of the county,” Allen said.

First Oregon, then Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York passed bills in 1887 to create Labor Day holidays. By the end of the decade, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Nebraska followed suit.

In 1894, 23 other states had joined the crowd when Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed it into law — a political olive branch.

The year before, as calls for a national Labor Day grew stronger, Cleveland declared Pullman railroad workers striking against severe wage cuts were committing a federal crime. He sent troops to break the picket lines, and two workers were killed.

In an election year, Cleveland’s popularity sank among the rising numbers of industrial workers. He needed to appease them — and fast.

“So he was trying to do something to recover from (the Pullman strike),” Allen said. “While it may have been somewhat cynical on his part, his support helped make it a national holiday.”

Cleveland lost anyway, but the gains made by the labor movement since Labor Day’s creation continue to benefit us today.

Thanks to the labor movement’s struggles, we have 8-hour days, weekends, overtime pay, child labor restrictions and workplace safety regulations, Allen said. As wage workers grew into a nascent middle class and acquired political clout, he said, Labor Day became not only an annual celebration of progress, but also a reminder of work to be done.

“It’s always been a holiday that was an opportunity to do both,” Allen said.

It remains so, he said, in light of efforts to raise the minimum wage to a living wage for workers in the service industries. Funding cuts have reduced the number of federal workplace safety inspectors, making it easier for violations and putting workers more at risk.

And at a point where the ratio of CEO compensation to workers’ salaries is at an all-time high, unions, seeing their ranks shrink, are trying to compensate by reaching out to community groups to form broad coalitions.

On Labor Day, Allen said, people should remember the achievements of more than a century, but not forget that labor’s struggles matter more than ever.

“That’s the most important message of Labor Day,” Allen said. “If you don’t keep protecting people on the job, things will get worse, not better.”

But even so, Labor Day’s chief appeal may live in its lack of formality. There aren’t any set customs, rituals or expectations. If you’re lucky to have the holiday, it’s like a timeout, a break before life revs up.

That’s the way Iva Woods, a State College resident who recently enjoyed Spring Creek with her 3-year-old son, will spend the day — just her and her family off somewhere, in the moment and not thinking of the past.

“I think it’s OK not to commemorate anything,” she said. “It’s a day off.”