There isn’t much good to say about Labor Day, except maybe that it could be worse — it could be on May 1, which would make it a full-on Communist holiday instead of a merely crypto-Communist one. For that we can thank Grover Cleveland, the last pretty-good Democrat (seriously: gold standard, anti-tariff, vetoed twice as many bills as all of his predecessors combined — Rand Paul is a fan), who pushed for the creation of a labor festival in September as cultural competition to the international workers’ celebration in May, sort of the reverse of the strategy of the early Church fathers’ choosing the dates of heathen festivals for the new Christian holidays.
So, from the two out of three working-age Americans who are gainfully employed, a round of applause for President Cleveland.
But crypto-Communist holidays are not so great, either.
Labor Day, like Obamacare and much else that is distasteful about American public life today, is a product of American liberals’ desire to be Canadians. The ’Nucks started celebrating labor on the first Monday in September in the 1880s; this holiday grew out of a parade celebrating a typographical workers’ strike in 1872. Soon, U.S. labor bosses, especially the Marxist Central Labor Union, wanted a holiday of their own. If there is anything we learned from the 20th century, it is that Communists love a parade. President Cleveland, feeling a bit of political pressure after having dispatched Brigadier General Nelson Miles to crush the Pullman strike and chucking Eugene Debs in the hoosegow, calculated that an end-of-summer barbecue for the riffraff might be just the tonic for his ailing administration.
(Small ideological world: The Central Labor Union’s political arm was the United Labor Party, which in 1886 ran as its candidate for mayor of New York the political economist Henry George, whose eccentric plan for a single tax on the value of unimproved land was much admired by the Conservative party’s candidate for mayor of New York in 1965, William F. Buckley Jr.)
The Canadian typographical workers had been demanding a 58-hour work week and the repeal of anti-union laws. Parliament obliged, and of course the unions’ immediate response was to press for a 54-hour work week, and then a still shorter one, and so on, until everybody was French. The French 35-hour work week is the current object of envy among our naïve Europhiles, and it has been an object of curiosity among economists: Contrary to their indolent reputation, French workers are, on paper, among the world’s most productive, outperforming U.S. workers on a GDP-per-work-hour basis. There are many possible explanations for that, the most likely of which is lying. It is probable that French people work more hours than they claim and Americans less, with work spilling over the borders of those official 35-hour French weeks and Internet-fueled leisure time infiltrating American weeks. Research suggests that in reality the French put in more hours than the Germans, though rather less than 19th-century Canadian typographers.
The entire idea of “labor” as a social class standing in counterpoint to “capital” is antiquated, of course, and the main problem of the poor in the United States is not that they are worked too hard but that they do not work at all, a problem grown much worse during the presidency of Barack Obama. Decorum counsels against burning the president in effigy, but that would be a more fitting Labor Day conflagration than the grilling of hot dogs. Labor Day ought to be one of the most important days of the year for Republicans, who should make the lot of the unemployed their top domestic-policy item. Patriotic bunting is no substitute for an agenda.
What conservatives know but seldom say is that labor is no longer a class — it is a racket. Labor Day is an occasion upon which highly paid union men have the day off to do some shopping at retail stores staffed almost exclusively by nonunion workers (if you’re in retail, you’re working on Labor Day), to have cookouts in backyards maintained by nonunion (and often illegal) workers, and to otherwise enjoy the delectable fruits of hypocrisy.
Some years ago I helped start a short-lived daily newspaper in Philadelphia. The business owned no trucks and employed no drivers, but the Teamsters’ local was insistent that it should have a contract with us nonetheless, and, in service of that demand, it energetically picketed our offices and those of such advertisers as we had. But of course it is expensive to get Teamsters to do anything, including man a picket line, so most often the ranks of those marching against our experiment in free enterprise consisted of a Teamster organizer or two and a bunch of day laborers to flesh out the line. But if you have to be the target of a protest, pray it is the Teamsters — a business down the street was targeted by animal-rights nuts, who, unlike the gentlemen of organized labor, do not go home every afternoon at 4:25 p.m.
Labor Day now exists primarily as an occasion for Democrats to demand an increase in the minimum wage and for Republicans to respond clumsily to that challenge, caught by surprise year after year after year. One day — say, the next time the Democrats control both Congress and the presidency — the Republicans really ought to let them have their way on that and go them one better, a minimum wage of $25 an hour or so. Then every day will be like Labor Day — we’ll be grilling our own hamburgers, because that will be the only way to get them.
Beyond politics, the main purpose of Labor Day is to mark the end of summer, providing people who like to argue about such things an opportunity to discuss when white may and may not be worn. But as a terminus of summer, Labor Day is disappointing. The fine fall weather is still a month or more away, and we still have three more weeks of official summer, with this year’s equinox happening on September 22. In the humid parts of the country, this is the very worst part of the season, with the beaches and holidays behind us but the weather still as unpleasant and gritty as a New Jersey parking lot. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” saith the Lord, but I do not think that this is what He had in mind. Probably not what Grover Cleveland had in mind, either.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.