Starting in 1893, the Pullman Palace car company, a manufacturer of railroad cars in Chicago, lowered the already dismally low pay of its employees. When workers requested to meet with the company’s president, George Pullman, to share their grievances (which were not only low pay, but also poor living conditions, 16 hour workdays, among other things), Pullman refused. In the time that followed, Pullman employees prepared for a massive company-wide walk off. Other railroad workers, helmed by labour organizer Eugene V. Debs, joined in the strike. The result was an action that lasted over two months and involved over 100,000 workers. During the crisis, U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law creating Labour Day. Cleveland did this to throw the unions a bone. It would be decades before the employee protections that many now take for granted—the eight hour work day, weekends, vacation time, the eradication of child labour—would be put into place.
The Pullman strike was not the first of its kind, and the first official Labour Day was not the first time the holiday had been celebrated; it had its origins about a decade earlier. The original Labour Day took place on September 5, 1882. It was a parade, a one-day strike meant to raise awareness of the right to organize, the necessity of an eight hour workday, and the right to a living wage. It was a calm affair, a relative success. It took place a few years before the first May Day, a very similar work holiday. While May Day began as a way to bring awareness to basic worker protections, it garnered a reputation for being linked with socialist, anarchist, and communist movements, due in part to the 1886 Haymarket Affair. The Haymarket Affair started as a peaceful protest meeting organized by local Chicago anarchists in response to the police killings of strikers. Police approached the speakers and tried to dismantle the event, someone threw a bomb, and the police started indiscriminately firing at people (sound familiar?). In the aftermath, people blamed the organizers, a mini red scare ensued, and that’s a large reason it’s not really celebrated in North America anymore. Labour Day, too, has lost much of its initial power. What were once two holidays created in response to monumental moments in labour rights history are now pretty meaningless in this part of the world. And on top of everything, work holidays in general are disappearing as well.
But where did they come from to begin with? Before the creation of Labour Day, in the US and Canada, there were very few national holidays for workers. Time off in general was sparse for members of the working class. It hardly existed at all. Almost all workers had a 6 day workweek, with Sundays off. Almost all workers had extremely long days. Meanwhile, for the wealthy and the upper echelons of the middle class, leisure time sometimes seemed unlimited. This sort of relationship with working constantly is something that is not at all new. It dates to before the industrial revolution, in fact, our tumultuous relationship with work holidays is hundreds of years old.
In her book Dancing in the Streets, the writer Barabara Ehrenreich talks about the decline of holidays and festivities throughout Europe between the 16th and 19th centuries. This in part had to do with Calvinism, a branch of Protestantism developed in the 16th century that preached the complete sovereignty of God. It also has a hell of a lot to do with the invention of capitalism. Together, these forces shaped a culture of repression throughout Europe. It was seen as almost godly to fully dedicate yourself to work. She writes: “The middle class learned to calculate, save, and ‘defer gratification,’ meanwhile “the lower class had been transformed into a disciplined, factory-ready working class.” No longer was the peasant class, working hard in “seasonally determined bursts,” she writes, “New industrialization required ceaseless labour, all year round.”
Prior to this period of rapid industrialization, of lower and peasant classes being turned into factory workers, festivities were common. Holidays didn’t really exist in the same way that they do now, but people found a myriad of opportunities for mixing work with play. Then, with the advent of capitalism, Calvinism, and the good old protestant work ethic, all of that changed. Ehrenenreich also writes that Calvinism convinced huge numbers of people that work was good for their souls. It also convinced them that leisure time—be it going to festivals or drinking with friends—was literally sinful and evil. It became a cultural norm to wake up early and go to work. During this time holidays were actually outlawed; there were legal implications to leisure time. It became good and holy and pious to dedicate your whole life to God and work and to abhor any form of indulgence or pleasure. Religious, political and economic forces shaped life into a highly regimented assembly line. When Europeans first started to settle in North America, they brought their protestant work ethic with them, recreating a culture endorsed by the church and state that was centered around work as our only religion. And it’s been this way for centuries.
Thanks to worker-led labour movements things have changed since the 19th century. There are now massive worker protections. Most people have a five day work week. Most people are able to take some form of vacation. There is no child labour in the US and Canada. But labour inequality continues to be a massive problem. Spend any amount of time reading about the conditions in Amazon factories and it’s clear we are still eons away from equity in the workplace. Or take the very recent struggle of sex workers on OnlyFans, who once again have had their livelihood threatened by wealthy people who refuse to acknowledge that sex work is work. The gig economy, also, is a perilous place. I’m a gig economy worker. I find it to be really difficult to actually take time off, and I’m not alone. With economic precarity and job insecurity amplified by COVID it seems like time off and work holidays are on the decline all over again. We are no longer taking time off when we are given it, if we are given it at all, and yet we’re meant to feel grateful for all of it. Living to work isn’t just a state of mind evangelized by “grind culture”, but a virtuous rebranding of our relentless reality. Simply put, our relationship to holidays and labour is deeply freaked. But this isn’t something new. It’s just history cycling back. It’s capitalism continuing to grind its gears.