Correcting the Concession of Labor Day

The First Labor Day in New York, 1882On September 7th Americans observed the holiday known as Labor Day. Many of them, not knowing its origins, enjoyed a day, ironically, without labor. Yet the question of why Labor Day exists and what it celebrates should be answered by the virtue of its continued celebration.

Labor Day was created in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland as a compromise to end the tension caused by the 1894 Pullman Palace Car Company Strike. Employees of the company went on strike over wage cuts and an increased work day. This strike grew to the point where strikebreakers were attacked in order to force the company to meet its employees’ demands. The United States Government then dispatched the US Military and Marshals, who killed 13 strikers in the attempt to restore order after strikers ignored a federal injunction instructing them to end the violence that already caused $340,000 worth of damage. The President, fearing further conflict, decided to grant a concession to the strikers who he identified “labor,” meaning anyone who works for an employer. Not wishing to align himself with Communists and Socialists who celebrate their own labor day, otherwise known as May Day, the President choose a different date for his Labor Day: the first Monday of September.

Thus, this seemingly innocent holiday was an example of a failure of the United States Government to properly defend its citizens – in this case businessmen – from the use of force, and its willingness to compromise with those who would use force to get what they want.

The same compromise is occurring today, though without the stark reminder of violence that accompanied the Pullman strike. As Washington continues to push for more and more power over our lives, we hear constantly of the need to compromise. But compromise is not proper when our freedom and rights are at stake.

As Ayn Rand wrote:

“It is only in regard to concretes or particulars, implementing a mutually accepted basic principle that one may compromise. For instance, one may bargain with a buyer over the price one wants to receive for one’s product, and agree on a sum somewhere between one’s demand and his offer. The mutually accepted basic principle, in such case, is the principle of trade, namely: that the buyer must pay the seller for his product. But if one wanted to be paid and the alleged buyer wanted to obtain one’s product for nothing, no compromise, agreement or discussion would be possible, only the total surrender of one or the other…There can be no compromise between a property owner and a burglar; offering the burglar a single teaspoon of one’s silverware would not be a compromise, but a total surrender—the recognition of his right to one’s property.”

Labor Day, however, can be more significant than its original purpose of appeasement to coercion. It can be an opportunity to educate people that there is in fact no conflict between the rights of employers and employees. Employers are free to seek employees to create and sell their products; employees, in turn, are free to seek employers that meet their criteria. As in any other relationship, employment should be free from coercion by either party.

The 1894 Pullman Strike and the resulting Labor Day holiday gave credence to the harmful idea that employers and employees are in a constant struggle to exploit one another. But labor is properly viewed as a great value shared by both employers and employees, since neither would be able to exist without the other. It would be fitting on the next Labor Day to put aside the incorrect notion of conflict between these two groups and instead thank each other for making possible a productive life.

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