Why do we have “Labor Day” in America? I think that if this question were put to many people under the age of 20, they would not know. Labor Day has become nothing more than another Monday holiday where some people (government workers, bankers) get a final three-day weekend to mark the end of the summer season. The purpose behind this named holiday is vague at best.
A firmly established idea in the American system is that having a “holiday” gives status and prestige to certain things. Even though “holiday” is derived from the church calendar (“holy day”) and its many feast days, the term means little more than a day off work, paid for some people. The most recent campaign for a new national holiday was fought over Martin Luther King Day. It is a good example of the forces at work in establishing a national holiday. King’s actual birthday is January 15, but the attraction of another three-day weekend for workers and the resort industry made “King Day” into a celebration that takes place on the third Monday of January, not on his birthday. King Day is still widely resisted and resented by some folks for various reasons. These range from employers not wanting to add another paid holiday, to those who resist anything they see as a mandate of the federal government, to those who are outright racists (and other reasons). Yet I think King Day is here to stay, and will probably take on a certain degree of irrelevance over the years and just become a three-day weekend in January for ski trips and winter youth retreats.
There are a couple of newer contenders for holiday status in the mix. Some want to christen September 11 as “Patriot Day,” in remembrance of the terrorist attack in 2001. There is a congressional mandate that requires colleges and universities to recognize “Constitution Day” on September 17, the brainchild of the late Senator Robert Byrd, who included the mandate in a congressional spending bill in 2004. Others have suggested adding a Monday holiday in February after Super Bowl Sunday to give everyone a chance to recover from the celebration (this has been a serious proposal).
Other holidays have seen their popularity wane. We don’t do much for Columbus Day any more. I remember big ceremonial tree plantings on Arbor Day in my childhood, but now I don’t even remember when it is. Earth Day had some juice for a while, but does not seem to be gaining a foothold.
It saddens me a little that Labor Day does not carry any sense of honoring the Labor Movement anymore. I know that Big Labor and unions are out of favor for many Americans. They are seen as evil, even by those who have benefited from labor’s battles for better wages and workplace rules. I recently read that 25% of American jobs now pay less than $10/hr, or less than $20,000/yr if projected to full-time employment (many of these jobs are part-time). I don’t know if that is true, but that is a very sad statistic if it is even close.
Nebraska Christian College