Labor Day, 1889

Labor Day is a day of rest for most of us–the last holiday of the summer. But Nebraska’s first Labor Day, a hundred years ago, offered little respite for those who toiled. The Grand Island Democrat reported, “Last Monday was ‘Labor Day,’ a holiday, made so by an act of the last legislature. We started out Monday morning to find who the laborers of Grand Island were and how they were going to celebrate the day. We went to all the new buildings under construction expecting to find them deserted and the men off on a picnic. But we were mistaken. The hod carriers were busy as usual carrying the brick and mortar to the men who did all the work on the walls. We thought certainly these men can’t be laborers or they would be picnicking on this legal holiday appointed by the party that fixed high tariff so that laboring men could all be ‘dignified nabobs’ so to speak.

“We went up through the railroad yards expecting to learn that the men were off having a good time spending the surplus wealth that protective tariff poured into their fat pocket books. But we found every man in his place handling coupling pins and freight, oiling car wheels and repairing trucks. We concluded that these were not the laboring men for whom the legislature spent two or three days’ time at $2,000 per day to enact a law making the first Monday in September a legal holiday. We wondered where the laborers of Grand Island could be as we noticed all the merchants had their stores open and their clerks on duty.

“We gave up the search and concluded that Grand Island contained no laborers as intended by the labor law, and were going back to our daily toil when we passed one of the banks and noticed a placard on the door, ‘bank closed.’ We asked someone if Grand Island had experienced a bank failure? Oh no! he replied, today is Labor Day and the banks are closed on that account.

“At last we had found the laborers. We wondered if the banks were the only laborers who could afford a holiday? We learned that the county offices were all closed, and the laborers whose salaries of from $1,500 to $5,000 per year are paid out of the taxes collected from the people, were having a holiday and picnic resting from their labors.

“Our hunt for an item had given us a lesson in political economy. We thought that laborers were the men who toiled physically carrying the hod and doing the manual labor for wages, but we found this was not the case. The laborers meant by the politicians are the bankers, government officers and monopolies. Man lives to learn, and will learn if he will only investigate. The people ought to return thanks to the legislature, as they engage in their evening prayers, for teaching them this great lesson in establishing Labor Day.”

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