A Brief History Of Labor Day NPR's Scott Simon asks writer A.J. Jacobs about the history of Labor Day and the labor movement.

A Brief History Of Labor Day

A Brief History Of Labor Day

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NPR's Scott Simon asks writer A.J. Jacobs about the history of Labor Day and the labor movement.


With Labor Day upon us, we turn now to the hardest working man in trivia to help fill us in on the history of this holiday and the U.S. labor movement. A.J. Jacobs is, of course, a best-selling author and expert on all things arcane - by the way, what a great name for a news program. A.J., welcome back.

AJ JACOBS: Thank you, Scott. Good to be here.

SIMON: So what's the U.S. origin of Labor Day? I understand President Grover Cleveland, he's credited with creating it.

JACOBS: Right, and in 1894, he made it a federal holiday. But there is some controversy over whether it was a genuine gesture because some historians argue he passed it as a way to pacify the workers movement and divert attention from May Day, May 1, which was a much more radical worker's day.

And the Pullman Strike was going on at the time. The authorities had shot workers on the picket line. So it was a very tumultuous time. Cleveland defenders say that this is an unfounded conspiracy.

SIMON: You say that the first ever labor strike is in the time of the pharaohs.

JACOBS: It's the first recorded work stoppage. And it was the workers who were building the tomb of Ramses III, and they marched off the job chanting we are hungry. The management sent them pastries, but apparently that did not appease the workers. And it was successful. The workers got their money, and Ramses ended up being killed by his harem. So he was not a great manager in any respect.

SIMON: You point out, whatever their endless demerits, pirates apparently had heightened workers consciousness - argh.

JACOBS: (Laughter) Yes, they...

SIMON: That's my pirate.

JACOBS: That was very impressive. I was whisked back to the Caribbean. But we should honor pirates for being pioneers of workers' rights. They were surprisingly progressive in their employment policy. They elected the captains democratically. There was profit-sharing agreements.

And the pirates even had an early version of workers' comp. So some of the pirate booty would go into a common fund to repay the pirates who had lost limbs or eyes. So those peg legs and hooks, they were subsidized. And by the way, I was going to make an argh-bitration joke, but you beat me to it.

SIMON: (Laughter).

JACOBS: I will spare you and America.

SIMON: A great labor activist ran for president from prison, too, we should note.

JACOBS: This was exactly 100 years ago. And Eugene Debs, one of the founders of the modern labor movement and a socialist, he got nearly a million votes in the 1920 race, and he was in prison. His slogan was prisoner number 9653 for president, so very catchy. And he was serving a sentence for violating the Sedition Acts because he spoke out against U.S. involvement in World War I. And one of his supporters - I love this quote - he said the question is not why Debs is in jail, but why are so many of us out of jail?

SIMON: A.J., have you ever read Eugene Debs' courtroom speech when he was sentenced?


SIMON: Even people who had no sympathy for his politics said that this was a very eloquent moment. He said while there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

JACOBS: That is lovely. And you memorized that? That's impressive.

SIMON: No, I looked it up on Google. But still, I...

JACOBS: OK (laughter).

SIMON: ...I had heard it, and it - you know, I was going to paraphrase it for you but in not so eloquent a manner. A.J. Jacobs, author of "Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey." A.J., enjoy the holiday.

JACOBS: Thank you. You, too.

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