Labor Day, begun 100 years ago, is the nation's most unusual holiday in terms of its origin and passage through time. On the one hand, it was initiated by workers to break up the long interval between July 4 and Thanksgiving when there were no holidays. On the other hand, it was supported by union laborers as a day to show the strength and solidarity of their ranks through parades and similar demonstrations. Because the two objectives were divergent, the holiday would fall victim to some fine points.
To amass large numbers of union workers was a difficult, if not unrealistic goal in America. Since colonial times labor was viewed as a temporary status in a society with enormous opportunities. To pursue unionism was admission that upward mobility was not possible.
In such a social environment a Union Day would not fly, but Labor Day was too general, the monopoly of one group: the farmer labored, as did the merchant, physician, and clerk. And there would be far more of the latter then there would be blue-collar workers carrying union cards.
For these reasons the big parade that labor leaders predicted for the first celebration in 1882 fell short of expectations. The initital national observance in 1895 was also uneventful, except as a day of leisure: ''The labor organizations in this city,'' read one newspaper account, ''with the exception of the Knights of Labor who are garment makers, refrained from parading yesterday, but observed the day by attending picnics, where they had music, dancing, and speaking. . . .''
There were other developments that worked to the disadvantage of organized labor's hopes. In the 1880s European unions moved toward adopting May 1 as the international labor celebration. But American leaders were divided over the matter, opting ultimately for the late summer break. And the attempt to identify with the international day would be discredited, first by the riot associated with the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in the wake of May Day, 1886, later by the perception of European movements as too radical.
Then came the Pullman railroad strike and boycott in the spring of 1894 which Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, could not fully support. This division in organized labor's camp provided Congress with the opportunity to take full advantage of the situation. Legislation establishing a national Labor Day was rushed through both houses - with unanimous votes - and signed by President Cleveland during the Pullman crisis in June, with the immediate beneficiaries the large number of working people who preferred the obvious (a day off) to principle (unionism).
The gains that organized labor would make had little to do with the activities of Labor Day. The AFL for a long time eschewed political action and demonstration in preference to the bargaining table. Its own method of organization along skilled lines worked against the goal of building an army of laborers, some of whom could perceive that skill was becoming an anachronism anyhow.
Finally, organized labor had no Armageddon or Gettysburg to rally the troops, and the first Monday in September just didn't quite fit the bill, although Gompers tried to ennoble the day. ''It is regarded,'' he said in 1898, ''as the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs might be discussed, placed upon a higher plane of thought and feeling; that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it; meet at their parks, groves and grounds, and by appropriate speech, counsel with, and pledge to, each other that the coming year shall witness greater effort than the preceding in the grand struggle to make mankind free, true and noble.''
To be sure, later in the 20th century Labor Day would give unions some limelight from politicians in search of votes. However, after 100 years organized labor finds its ranks dwindling (from a peak of 25 percent of the civilian labor force to less than 20 percent percent) and its special days not so special. May Day in America after World War II became Loyalty Day - in opposition to communist regimes flexing their military muscle - and more recently is observed as Law Day.
As for Labor Day, it has come to mean for most Americans the ending of summer and the beginning of fall.