Labor Day: A New Start

by Kerry Dougherty

Labor Day. America’s most ambiguous national holiday.

Think about it. On other special days – Memorial, Independence, Veterans, Thanksgiving, Presidents, Martin Luther King and Christmas – we pause, however briefly, to honor a beloved person or a historical event.

We have parades, visit cemeteries, blast fireworks, give thanks, recite a famous speech or watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

Not on Labor Day.

Take a peek at the festivities scheduled this weekend. Wait. What festivities? The Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon has moved on, so there’s nothing to do today other than hit the beach and cook out.

Swimming and eating burgers has nothing to do with Labor Day’s grittier, trade union roots.

And that’s a good thing.

I’m not sure anyone wants to mark Labor Day by dragging a picket sign to the beach or by joining a national scavenger hunt to look for Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Does anyone plan to watch Norma Rae today? Or gather the family together for a few choruses of “The Ballad of Joe Hill”?

Anyone inviting the repulsive Randi Weingarten to their cookout?

I didn’t think so.

On Labor Day, it’s not what we do, it’s what we don’t do – labor.

On its website, the U.S. Department of Labor clings to the fiction that those taking the day off are paying tribute to the trade union movement. It features black-and-white photos of famous and obscure labor leaders and this:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.


Maybe Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther are revered in some Rust Belt regions. But everywhere else, Labor Day is simply the bittersweet end of summer.

It’s also the last time we can wear white until Memorial Day.

Here in Virginia, where — until 2019 — the commonwealth’s children enjoyed the protection of what’s been dubbed “The King’s Dominion Relief Act,” this was also the day before public schools are allowed to open.

That was a good law, by the way. It’s unnatural to send kids back to the classroom in August. Besides, 180 days of school are 180 days. What difference does it make when they commence?

For the kid in each of us, the start of school makes Labor Day feel a little like New Year’s. As someone who was educated in public schools that started the Tuesday after the first Monday of September, Labor Day always was about the proverbial clean slate.

The start of a school year meant crisp notebooks, sharp pencils and three-ring binders full of pristine paper with bright plastic dividers. It meant new clothes in fall colors and stiff shoes guaranteed to produce blisters the size of Ritz crackers.

It was the giddy optimism that came with meeting a new teacher – one who might finally recognize your hidden genius – and new classmates and maybe even a new best friend. It was the absolute certainty that this year would be better than last.

Sometimes it was. Often it wasn’t.

But on Labor Day, all things seemed possible. That alone is worth celebrating.

Republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed and Unedited.