Last Monday, September 2, marked the 125th anniversary of the adoption of Labor Day as a federal holiday in the U.S. The event was the culmination of the adoption of Labor Day, which had union backing, as an official holiday by 30 states. Today, Labor Day falls on the first Monday of September in both the U.S. and Canada.
Labor Day was perceived as a less radical alternative to May 1, which is International Workers Day in every other country in the world. Ironically, that date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886.
On that day, several hundred workers demonstrated for the adoption of an eight-hour day. As darkness fell, Chicago police ordered the demonstrators to disperse. A bomb exploded, killing several police and demonstrators.
More demonstrators were shot or wounded by police fire. No one knows who planted the bomb or whether it had perhaps been the work of an agent provocateur trying to create a crisis. A number of labor leaders were arrested despite a lack of evidence that any had a hand in the bombing. Four leaders were hanged and others sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
The violence of the Haymarket affair seems to have summarized the 19th century understanding of industrial capitalism – capital on one side, labor on the other – with the state aligned with capital. Socialism, labor unions and later the welfare state or social democracy sought to level the playing field with a balance of economic power between the two essential factors of production.
But what if the conviction of a zero-sum conflict between capital and labor was a misunderstanding of economic reality? What if labor was too a capital asset, albeit a different kind of asset from money, plant or equipment? Then, the issue for owners and managers would have been how to get the optimum result from a partnership between capital and labor. That alternative is recommended by our Principles for Business.
On a related note, our colleague Richard Broderick composed a poem about Labor Day we wanted to share with you:
World of Our Fathers
The world of ill-fitting suits,
of baggy knees and elbows
and hand-me-down shoes.
The world of corns and bunions,
lame men, missing fingers.
The world of bad haircuts
and barber shop chatter,
nicks and cuts from straight-razors,
bay rum and styptic pencils.
The world of beer in cardboard buckets.
And the world of lunch buckets.
The world of stone fences,
brickyards and the foundry,
the rough and the thicket,
the six-day workweek
and the company picnic.
And the world of day trips
to the country where the sun
burned their pale skin,
and they gathered us like wild honey,
like the blackberries that wept
in the baskets beside them
on the train ride home.