Legacy Labor Pains

Honoring workers on Labor Day became a national holiday in the U.S. on June 29, 1894, but an initial celebration occurred in New York City in 1882. Municipal ordinances followed to create local observances. Oregon became the first state to pass a law for the extra holiday, followed by Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania. Twenty-four states installed Labor Day as a holiday before President Grover Cleveland made the day official for the country.

The labor-pain backstory is what is compelling. It includes President Cleveland instructing federal troops to intervene in Chicago to quell strikes by workers. Low wages and 16-hour workdays at the Pullman Palace Car Company was the impetus for striking workers. American Railway Union members joined the strike, shutting down railroads and the supply chain crisscrossing the Midwest.

Besides divisions between employers and workers, I did not realize that there was a contested winner (founder) of the Labor Day holiday. Two workers laid claim that the holiday was their legacy–Peter McGuire, a secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and Matthew Maguire, who later became a secretary of the International Association of Machinists. Both men attended the first parade in New York City, but in creating the federal law, President Cleveland declared that “…the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire…the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

Does this stormy tale bring to your mind the multiple divisions we are experiencing in the U.S. currently? How are we to understand such contentious dissension in the land?  

Writer and playwright James Baldwin had an explanation involving responsibility: “History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”  Baldwin shouldered his legacy of an unequal history while working tirelessly to break through painful chains of racism. World-class tennis player Serena Williams has hauled history with her as she worked through breakpoints in racism within her courts of influence. The operative word here is work. 

It takes work to create positive changes. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act initiated a course correction to limit child labor, set a minimum wage, specify a shorter workweek, and institute overtime pay for beleaguered workers. However, labor pains are still with us. Let’s STOP taking advantage of workers. We depend on workers. Let’s raise today’s minimum-wage standard–last increased in 2009 to $7.25 per hour. Families deserve opportunities to pass on a better legacy to their children.

Consider, once again, how the pearl forms amidst an irritant in the parent oyster or mussel shell (see Pearls and Trauma, 7-21-21). Strikes are irritating, but they may be what works to deliver to workers the remuneration to provide a decent lifestyle. Hold onto to the notion that we are creating history every day. What legacy will we leave?

Pearls of Peace (PoP) Quiz:

113. What inequity draws your attention these days?

114. Can you think of one action to take on this Labor Day to honor workers?               

By Janis Johnston

Janis Clark Johnston, Ed.D., has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Boston University. She has worked with children, families, and groups (ages 3-83) with presenting issues of anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and relationship concerns. She initially worked as a school psychologist in public schools and was awarded School Psychology Practitioner of the Year for Region 1 in Illinois for her innovative work. She was a supervising psychologist at a mental health center, an employee-assistance therapist and a trainer for agencies prior to having a family therapy private practice. Recipient of the 2011 Founder’s Award for her dedication to the parenting education of Parenthesis Family Center (now called New Moms), and the 2002 Community Spirit Award from Sarah’s Inn, a domestic violence shelter and education center, Johnston is an active participant in numerous volunteer activities supporting children and families in her community. A frequent presenter at national psychology and educational conferences, Johnston has published journal articles, book chapters, and two books -- It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development (2013, hardback; 2019, paperback) and Midlife Maze: A Map to Recovery and Rediscovery after Loss (2017, hardback; 2019, paperback). In addition to augmenting and supporting personal growth in families, Johnston is a Master Gardener and loves nurturing growth in the plants in her yard.


  1. The inequity of economic system (capitalism born of our history of racism and suppression of indigenous people) continues to oppress the poor, It also adversely affects health.


  2. Yes, inequities in our culture affect both the wallet and wellness of low-pay workers. What is especially troubling is how the children in many workers’ families suffer too. It is not uncommon for single mothers to work more than one job just to keep afloat.


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