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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Oxen Long Enough

Today, Labor Day is coupled in all our minds with the phrase, "three-day weekend." It's become a symbol of the last leisurely break before kids have to hit the books again and parents begin the long work-a-day grind that stretches from late-August to late-November, when the long Thanksgiving weekend rolls around.

But it wasn't always like this.

A Day to Honor Workers

Labor Day was established to honor the great majority of Americans who create our world with their muscles, sweat, skill, and courage. It was set aside so that, for at least one day, workers could occupy center stage rather than bosses and owners.

Or so they say. Actually, the reasons we have this three-day weekend are a little more complicated than that.

To Honor or Appease?

Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland. After Cleveland had broken the American Railway Union with considerable violence and loss of life, he signed a bill making the first Monday in September a national holiday for American workers. It was a blatant attempt to win their support, but workers were not so easily fooled. Especially Wisconsin workers.

For example, the program from a 1900 Milwaukee Labor Day celebration includes this advice:

"...year after year we walk up to the polls and vote the old party ticket, and put our necks under the yoke of the capitalist just as the well-trained ox walks under his master's yoke, and then we wonder why we are no better off than the ox.

"The great majority of the working men realize that they have hands to work with and a stomach to feed, but they appear to have entirely forgotten that they have brains to reason with. Come now and let us reason together. Let's swear off being oxen and nominate and elect men from the ranks of labor, whose interests are our interests… We have been oxen long enough."

Best of Both Worlds

Of course, it's not an either-or situation: Labor Day can be both a chance to relax and a chance to reflect. We can recognize the contribution of all workers and honor their dignity while also tossing back a cold brew by the lake.

Or while looking at these historic photographs of people at work.

Whatever you to this weekend, be safe.

:: Posted in on August 29, 2013
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