Thomas Hart Benton

Some thoughts on the Origins of Labor Day

Most folks probably don’t think of Labor Day as a holiday commemorating struggle & death. But that’s what it used to be.

The period between the Civil War & the Great Depression was a time of massive upheaval: The industrial revolution swept in, & millions of Americans were forced to leave their farms & move to cities in search of work in the newly-formed rail, steel, textile, & shipping industries.

Economic policymaking was ad hoc & primitive. Massive recessions regularly created mass poverty & threw enormous numbers of people out of work. The rules, both legal & social, were still being formed for how employers could treat employees, & how the wealth they all collectively produced would be distributed.

Inequality soared to enormous heights by the end of the period. The minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, laws against child labor, & more were only instituted after pitched political combat. Unions were growing as the one avenue by which workers could fight for their interests, & the economy saw waves of regular strikes & work stoppages that would be unheard of today.

Sometimes, the battles were literal: Employers & politicians were not shy about busting unions with police forces & hired enforcers. Riots, deaths, & bombings were not uncommon.

The first inklings of America’s Labor Day took shape in 1882, when the Central Labor Union (CLU) met in September in New York City for a labor festival. Peter McGuire, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), who was inspired by a parade in Toronto in 1872 in support of a strike against 58-hour work weeks may have been the 1st to propose the idea of a ‘Labor Day’. Other research points to Matthew Maguire, a machinist & member of the Knights of Labor. But somehow or another, the idea for a parade & yearly holiday to honor American workers was hatched.

The first parade of the new project was held in Manhattan on Sept. 5, 1882. It started out small, but then a band showed up, & workers’ groups from various industries began to flow in. Eventually the parade swelled to 10,000. After that initial success, various state & municipal governments began naming an official day to commemorate labor.

Then a massive recession hit in 1893. The job losses were devastating — & the frustration crystallized in a nationwide strike against the Pullman Company, a railroad car manufacturer & founder of one of the most infamous company towns in America, keeping the workers in appalling living conditions.

Railroad baron George Pullman created his eponymous town in 1880 just outside Chicago. It was a model of capitalist feudalism, with workers offered housing in line with their position in the company. Residents worked for Pullman’s company & their rent was automatically docked from their paychecks. They even had to bank at Pullman’s crooked bank. But Pullman’s business plummeted when the recession hit. Hundreds were laid off & wages were deeply cut — yet rents in the town did not decline.

In response, 4,000 of Pullman’s workers went on strike on May 11, 1894. On June 26, the American Railroad Union — led by Eugene V. Debs — called for a supporting boycott. One hundred & fifty thousand railway workers in 27 states joined the strike, refusing to operate Pullman rail cars. The massive halt to the rail industry & the interruption of U.S. mail cars set off a national crisis. Congress & President Grover Cleveland, looking to save face, rushed through a bill declaring Labor Day a national holiday. Cleveland signed it on June 28, 1894. He was backed by the AFL — the more conservative portion of the labor movement — which threw the first official Labor Day parade that year.

Pullman Strike, 1894 Drawing by Granger

But it was a brutally ironic gesture. Six days later, under pressure from the furious leaders of the rail industry, & facing the virtual shutdown of U.S. mail trains, Cleveland invoked the Sherman Antitrust Act to declare the stoppage a federal crime. He sent in 12,000 federal troops to break the strike. Days of fighting & riots ensued, as strikers overturned & burned railcars, & the troops responded with violent crackdowns. Over 30 workers were killed before the strikers were dispersed & the trains restarted.

Debs was sent to prison, where he read Marx for the first time, setting him on the path to becoming arguably America’s most famous socialist.

Cleveland & others picked the September date for Labor Day as a kind of alternative to May Day, which had by then arisen as the principal day of celebration for workers’ movements around the world. On May 1, 1886, over 250,000 workers struck in Chicago, shutting down 13,000 businesses to demand a shorter work week for equal pay. After several days of peaceful protest, an ‘unknown assailant’ threw a bomb at police in Haymarket Square on May 4. The police responded by firing into the crowd, killing scores of people.

So it’s understandable that many on the left view Labor Day as a cynical ploy — a lazy apolitical three-day weekend, which distracts from the remembrance of when workers fought & died for the basic human decency of a shorter work week.

But you could also look at Labor Day as a remembrance of a time when the labor movement was a force to be reckoned withSince the heyday of the New Deal, American membership in labor unions has collapsed. Millions of workers in modern service industries face capricious employment, low pay, & dismal conditions. Inequality has returned to its pre-Great-Depression levels, & the shared prosperity of the era immediately after the New Deal is a distant memory. Even the 40-hour work week is falling by the wayside.

All of which makes Labor Day ripe for reclaiming, in the name of some long-unfinished business.

~Inspired by an article by Jeffery Ross

5 September 2022 – “Speaking with the Stars”: The waxing gibbous Moon shines in the handle of the Sagittarius Teapot this evening. AND The dark edge of the Moon will occult (cover) one of the handle’s stars — Tau Sagittarii – for nearly all of the US, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Some times: Boston, 11:52 p.m. EDT; Miami, 11:48 p.m. EDT; Chicago, 10:35 p.m. CDT; Denver, 9:10 p.m. MDT; Phoenix, 7:46 p.m. MST. Near the West Coast the event happens in bright twilight and may not be observable.

Rudolf Steiner’s Lectures on this day


Deathday of Nathanael (Hebrew נתנאל, “God has given”) of Cana in Galilee, a disciple of Jesus Christ, mentioned in the Gospel of John in Chapters 1 & 21.

Jesus immediately characterizes him as “an Israelite in whom is no deceit”.   Steiner said this is a reference to the fact that Nathanael had been initiated & had received the title “The Israelite.” Jesus’ quote: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you”, shows their connection in the super-sensible world.

Deathday of Gaius Marius Victorinus, born in Africa he became a Roman rhetorician & Neoplatonic philosopher. He translated 2 of Aristotle’s books from ancient Greek into Latin: The Categories & On Interpretation

Deathday of Zacharias the Prophet, father of John the Baptist. He performed the priest’s office in Jerusalem during the reign of Herod. The Lord appeared before him, standing on the right side of the altar & said “Fear, not Zacharias,” assuring him that his prayer was well pleasing & it had inclined God to a great act of mercy. The Archangel Gabriel then visited Zacharias’ wife Elizabeth who had long been barren & told her that she would give birth to a son who would be called John, whose name signifies grace.

Zacharias said to the angel, “Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is well stricken in years.”  The angel answered, “I am Gabriel, that stands in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings.  And, behold, thou shall be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things be performed, because thou believes not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.”

Then the prophecy was fulfilled & John was born, & after Zacharias had written John’s name on a writing tablet, his mouth was filled with the Holy Spirit, his tongue was loosed, & he spoke, praising God.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem & the Magi came from the East, they told Herod of the newborn king. Herod sent soldiers to slay all the children in Bethlehem, he especially remembered hearing about the miraculous birth of John. “What manner of child shall this be?  Will this child be the King of the Jews?”  He decided to kill John.  The executioners could not find them, but the slaughter of innocents began.

When Elizabeth heard these cries, she took John & fled into the mountains.  When she saw soldiers drawing near, she prayed to God & cried out to the rocky mount nearby and said, “O mountain of God, receive a mother and her child!” Immediately the mountain was split & she entered hiding herself & John from the executioners.

The soldiers returned to Herod, having not found the child, & Herod sent word to Zacharias in the temple saying, “Surrender your son John to me.”  Saint Zacharias replied, “You will kill my body, but the Lord will receive my soul.”  The executioners straightway fulfilled Herod’s command & fell upon Zacharias between the temple & the altar.  His blood was spilt on the floor & became hardened like rock as a witness against Herod & a testimony to Zacharias.

935 – Birthday of Roswitha of Gandersheim – Who Steiner reveals in his last Karma lecture had a former incarnation as Plato, & who was also Steiner’s teacher Karl Julius Schöer (Vol. 9 lecture 10)

German Dramatist & nun Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim wrote the first plays known to be written by a woman after Sappho. She was a canoness, poet, dramatist, and historian. Surmised from internal evidence of the writings that she was born about 930 or 935, and died after 973, perhaps as late as 1002

Of Saxon background, Hrotsvitha became canoness of a convent in Gandersheim, near Göttingen. The convent was self-sufficient, known in its time for being a cultural and educational center. A “free abbey,” not connected to the hierarchy of the church.

Hrosvitha at the Benedictine convent, reading from a book
 Hrosvitha at the Benedictine convent, reading from a book.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hrotsvitha wrote plays on Christian themes. She also wrote poems and prose. In her lives of the saints and in a life in verse of Emperor Otto I, Hrostvitha chronicled history and legend. She wrote in Latin as was usual for the time. Because of allusions in the writing to Ovid, Terence, Virgil, and Horace, we can conclude that the convent included a library with these works.

The plays are unlike morality plays that Europe favored a few centuries later. Whether the plays were read aloud or actually performed, is unknown.

The plays include two long passages, one on mathematics and one on the cosmos.

The plays are known in translation by different titles:

Abraham, also known as The Fall and Repentance of Mary.
Callimachus, also known as The Resurrection of Drusiana.
Dulcitis, also known as The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Irene, Agape and Chionia or The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Agape, Chionia, and Hirena.
Gallicanus, also known as The Conversion of General Gallicanus.
Paphnutius, also known as The Conversion of the Thais, the Harlot, in Plays, or The Conversion of the Harlot Thais.
Sapienta, also known as The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Faith, Hope, and Charity or The Martyrdom of the Holy Virgins Fides, Spes, and Karitas.
The plots of her plays are either about the martyrdom of a Christian woman in pagan Rome or about a pious Christian man rescuing a fallen woman.

Natalia Goncharova

My POD (Poem Of the Day)

~the barley grows in straight rows,
the stalks unfurl following their divine purpose…
Truth rides visibly thru the world
Have you not seen it?
Drink in the light & praise the cup of forever
spilling out the golden flow of eternity…
Let grace roll down your head like holy oil
warmed in the hands of SHE…

4 thoughts on “Union

  1. Hazel, you’ve definitely inspired me to look into Hrotsvitha. She was quite an amazing being. Looking forward to reading the rest of the Karma lecture series

    1. I would imagine to have an incarnation as a Nun would be very powerful, especially to be able to take past experiences & make them into devotional artistic expressions…Wow.

  2. I joined the Carpenters Union about a year ago now, and then voluntarily resigned after seven months. What I found, and talking with some of the older Carpenters in their 60’s, was that the level of skill (and integrity of work) has gone down… and more are all about the money and benefits. So I used to joke with some of my co-workers that ‘we’ Carpenters are unabashed materialists who like expensive toys (atvs, big trucks, boats, etc..), and just work for the money. It is said, but kind of true. If you have a journeyman carpenter who makes $39/hour, all it would take to reach that stage is put in your 7000 hours On the Job and take 16 weeks of classes. It doesn’t guarantee that one becomes a master at Carpentry at that point. Many just become good at one thing. Some, don’t really become good at any of it.

    So while it is good that workers are getting their fair share of compensation, the craft itself hasn’t necessarily improved. I chose to leave the Union because 1), I didn’t want to work in the commercial sector, and 2), I didn’t want to be just a worker doing work just for money. That is not to say that many Union carpenters do not have integrity, many do! But it does involve taking chances with any trade, to branch out and do work that relates to something that one ‘believes in’.

    1. Thanks for that inside perspective. I have never been in a union. And I agree that they have become corrupt just like most organizations…
      The original idea of strength in numbers always appealed to me – & I admit, I am often pulled in by the ‘ideal’ & then just as often distressed that the ideal doesn’t consistently manifest…
      The Waldorf School is a prime example…

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