It’s perhaps startling to realize that, far from being a relatively new observance, Labor Day is among the oldest of federal holidays. Then-President Grover Cleveland signed the law creating it in 1894.
He put pen to paper only 24 years after the federal government began recognizing holidays at all. Almost 127 years later, we’ve added only four more to the calendar: Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth.
Nowadays, the Labor Day weekend is commonly regarded as summer’s final fling, a bookend to Memorial Day in marking the onset and passage of the warmer months when school and work make way for vacations and weekend cookouts.
Here in Vance County, we’ll celebrate on Saturday evening with the annual Kerr Lake fireworks show at Satterwhite Point. Normally it’s held on the Fourth of July weekend, but after canceling it in 2020 because of COVID-19, organizers wanted a little more time to get this year’s show together and make sure of its safety. No matter: It’s always a good time for fireworks.
Memorial Day is unlike Labor Day in one respect: Its purpose never goes unrecognized. We gather at the end of May every year to honor the men and women who’ve given their lives in defense of this country.
By contrast, the symbolic end-of-summer aspect of Labor Day tends to dominate the public imagination, to the detriment of its original purpose, namely to honor “the nobility of labor,” as the Congressional committee that wrote the bill for Cleveland’s signature put it.
There have always been factions who welcome that subsequent forgetting, as the creation of Labor Day had its roots in America’s labor-union movement and coincided with the notorious Pullman strikes in 1894.
Anti-unionism remains rampant to this day, especially in Southern states like North Carolina, where it echoes even in the history of Henderson and Vance County.
But we’ve always agreed with the sentiment that outside of love, the most sacred thing a person can give is their labor.
Being children of the Cold War, we also remember it was a Polish labor union, Solidarity, that successfully attacked the underpinnings of communism in that country and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet domination not just of Poland, but of all Eastern Europe. That new dawning of freedom was something most of us alive at the time had never expected to see.
Another Pole who through the force of his example helped midwife the fall of the Soviet empire, Pope John Paul II, had observed a few years before that it is “characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people,” giving them “the power to build a community.”
He saw capital and labor both as “indispensable components of the process of production in any social system,” and argued that libertarianism’s tilt toward one was every bit as wrongheaded and pernicious as communism’s tilt to the other.
He also recognized that if it’s to thrive, a society needs civic institutions, unions included, that are truly independent of government and capable of standing up for their own rights and interests.
They may sometimes indulge in excesses of their own, but the existence of such institutions is what fuels a give-and-take that ultimately protects individual dignity and improves social well-being, he said.