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Labor Day. The end of high season, the start of the harvest, the lessening of traffic, the time to remember where we put the sweaters. These are all things that we in Maine associate with the holiday we just celebrated. But none of them are really what the holiday is about.

Labor Day was founded way back in the glory days of the late 1800s to call attention to, and honor, the contributions of the American worker.

Exactly who founded the holiday is a matter of debate. Some say it was Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Others maintain it was Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey.

The debate seems to stem more from general confusion rather than “claim jumping” or rancor. Certainly both men attended the first ever Labor Day parade, held on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, and both were vital in securing rights and recognition for laborers who they saw (rightly in my view) as both essential and undervalued in our society.

It started as a generalized movement, was then adopted by a few states as an officially recognized holiday, and then formally signed into law as a national holiday in June of 1894 by president Grover Cleveland, arguably the president with the most adorable name ever.

At the time, of course, America’s labor force was in dire need of both those rights and the recognitions.


It was the era of big tycoons, land barons, robber barons, railroad barons (what is up with all the barons?), mega industry and miserable working conditions.

Railroads were being built, highways too. Coal mines, cotton mills, logging camps, shoe factories – this is the era we automatically picture with soot-streaked faces on tired bodies as progress steamed ahead and paved over our agrarian roots.

OK, I just made some wild, sweeping generalizations there – but I’m not far off.

We often romanticize this time, too, and there are reasons. It is the time of bold exploration (National Geographic was founded in 1888), new ideas, elegant architecture. Almost all of my favorite buildings are from this time. This is when all those glorious Carnegie libraries went up around the U.S. So beautiful, and also so radical. Free books on loan to absolutely anyone. Amazing.

However, the contemporary accounts of those actually living in those times, without the riches of the elite, are grim. Long hours, little pay, dangerous conditions, no safety net.

Hence Labor Day.


It is thanks to unions that child labor was outlawed, work hours became humane, pay became more equitable and weekends became, well, a thing.

Every so often, it becomes tempting to take these things for granted, to assume the basic civilities are a given. They’re not.

All you have to do to realize the importance of organized protections for workers is read the news. Back in February, right here in Maine a cafe and market was fined for violating child labor law and unfair wages, and just this week Antonia’s pizzeria in Freeport was forced to pay $236,000 in back pay and labor violation fines. Protections for labor remain an ever-present need.

Maybe one day the robot revolution will take over all the danger and drudgery of the jobs that need doing. Until then, thank goodness for a strong, vibrant, sustainable and safe labor force.

I hope you enjoyed your Labor Day. Stay safe.

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