POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Remember the Working Man on Labor Day

by David Trumbull

September 4, 2009

In just over two weeks voters in Boston will give their suffrages in the preliminary election of mayor and city councillors. Four men vie for two slots on the final ballot for mayor. Each will appeal, especially around this Labor Day weekend, to the many men and women of Boston who daily don jeans, work-shirts, and hoodies, and go out—in the heat of summer and cold of winter—to perform the manual labor that makes it possible for the winner of the election—and a great many of the rest of us—to wear a suit to the office where if we break a sweat it is in only a figurative sense or because the air-conditioning in on the fritz. The would-be councillors, likewise, must sell themselves to laborers with a plea to elect me to a better-paid and less physically demanding position than yours and I’ll remember you and try to make your life better too.

Of course, Labor Day is not about only manual labor. In an increasingly white-collar workforce the division of labor and management is less stark than when Labor Day observances started in the 1880s. But it should be more than just another three-day weekend or a fashion milestone.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day goes back to 1882 and while the precise origin is unclear, that agency credits, at least tentatively, Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, as the father. As my father was, for many years, a member of that union, I’m pleased to embrace that version. Massachusetts’ adoption of Labor Day as a legal holiday in 1887 was one of the first in the Union. By 1894 with a majority of the states having adopted the holiday it was finally enacted as a federal holiday.

Formerly cities and towns celebrated Labor Day with parades honoring the working man. Sadly the significance of the holiday has receded. A check of the calendar on the City of Boston website revealed no municipal Labor Day festivities planned on or around the day. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts website acknowledges the holiday and points visitors to information on the origin at the U.S. Dept. of Labor website. But the Commonwealth appears to have done no better than the City of Boston in organizing any official commemorative of the debt we all owe to the working men and women of the Bay State.

This Labor Day pause and reflect on the meaning of the day. Give thanks to millions—those not celebrated as Washington politicians or Hollywood stars—who do the work of this great nation.

[David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee. Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.]