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Laboring over Labor Day

Ryan Hoffman
rhoffman@citizentelegram.com

The federal government recognizes 10 national holidays — yes, 10.

Quick test, can you name all 10 without having to look them up online? I couldn’t. Some of these days — all of them are established by federal law — hold a particular place in our minds, if for no other reason than the degree of celebration. The ones with the grandeur of gifts and overeating could act as synonyms for the word holiday, while others don’t carry the same weight on the holiday hierarchy.

How many of us think of Washington’s birthday when we hear the word holiday? For me, Labor Day is one of those days that simply passes by without much notice — aside from the fact that nearly every government office is closed and my job is that much harder for one day.

Thinking about this particular day, which happens to be this Monday, I realized my Labor Day knowledge was … nonexistent (feel free to insult my intelligence).

Given the name I just assumed it had something to do with organized labor and the labor movement — lucky guess.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the first Monday in September was deemed Labor Day as a way of recognizing “the social and economic achievements of American workers.” Born out of municipal ordinances backed by union leaders in 1885 and 1886, states started catching on to the idea of a day recognizing labor in 1887 — Colorado was one of the first five states to pass such a law, according to the Department of Labor. The law mandating a national holiday was passed by Congress in 1894.

All of that, though, only spurred the next thought: Who qualifies as a laborer? Is it as simple as anyone who works (define works)?

Merriam-Webster defines laborer as one that labors (brilliant), specifically: a person who does unskilled physical work for wages. By that definition, I’ve been a laborer at two different stages in my life.

The first was working for a Budweiser distributor in Cincinnati. I still look back with amazement that at one point I could wheel 50 half barrels (for you laypeople out there, that’s a full keg of beer weighing roughly 160 lbs.) across the blacktop at Riverbend Music Center in the Cincinnati summer, and not think twice about it. Even with my recent efforts to eat healthier and exercise, I’m fairly certain I would seriously hurt myself if I tried that today.

The second was working in the operations department of the local parks department just before moving to Colorado. While there was physical work and I did receive a wage, the job was not nearly as demanding as being a beer boy (boy was not the official noun used in the work place).

Now, sitting at my desk in my air conditioned office, I certainly don’t think of myself as a laborer; even though one of Merriam-Webster’s definitions of labor is: physical or mental effort.

So who or what exactly are we celebrating again? Is it the labor movement and the achievements of organized labor? If so, this holiday might as well be a wake. A report by NPR earlier this year found that union participation in America has dropped from nearly a third of U.S. workers 50 years ago, to one in 10 today (Quoctrung Bui of NPR also created a visually informative info graphic to go along with the story).

The Department of Labor offers this nostalgic conclusion on its “history of Labor Day” webpage: “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Chalk it up to my young age or my tendency toward pessimism, but this feels like a perfect example of our propensity to view the past through rose-tinted glasses. Then again, maybe I’m just not working hard enough.

Ryan Hoffman is editor of The Citizen Telegram. He can be reached at 970-685-2103 or rhoffman@citizentelegram.com.


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