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Labor Day

08/28/08 7:55AM By Kenneth Davis
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(HOST) As we all get ready for the last holiday weekend of the summer, author and commentator Ken Davis of Dorset, is thinking about the real meaning - and history - of Labor Day.

(DAVIS) Reflecting on America¹s work ethic, Vermont's notoriously "silent" Calvin Coolidge once said, "The man who builds a factory builds a temple and the man who works there, worships there."

But there's also a popular country song that proclaims, "Take This Job and Shove It."

These divergent views of work are on my mind as Labor Day rolls around. While the kids make one last cannonball into the lake and the neighbors grill the ultimate hot dogs of summer, I¹m also pondering union legends like Joe Hill - and events like Haymarket Square.

Labor Day has its roots in the late 1800s, an era of low wages, twelve-hour days and six-day workweeks. Benefits? Vacations? A total fantasy.

When the first unofficial Labor Day parade stepped off in New York City in 1882, trade unions were being met with harsh - often violent - opposition. One of the darkest of those early days came in May 1886 when a strike in Chicago led to the Haymarket Square Riot that ended up with seven dead. In the aftermath, several labor organizers were hung.

When Labor Day was signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894, it was a bone tossed to the labor movement. And it was deliberately moved to September, to ensure that it would not recall the memory of Haymarket Square. Most of labor¹s successes - the minimum wage, overtime, child labor rules - did not come about until the Depression-era reforms of the New Deal.

Labor Day, then, was created to celebrate the "strength and spirit of the American worker." But it should remind us that - like so many of the things we take for granted - those victories for working people came at great cost, in blood and sweat.
 
Still, it is a holiday, so we might also want to remember a group of Norwegian ladies who worked in a Wisconsin factory and got their boss to give them time each day to relax together. To those dear ladies, we owe a debt for inventing what they called the "coffee break."
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