The History of Labor Day and Christ's Lighter Burden

Come, All Who Labor:

Yesterday was Labor Day. I’m sorry for those who had outdoor plans; today we’re back to work, and the weather is great.

For those of you a little rusty on your labor history, the history of Labor Day has dark roots in a Chicago police shooting just as controversial as any modern story.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously voted to support an eight-hour work day to be implemented no later than May 1, 1886. The cry, “eight-hour day with no change in pay!” was chanted by nearly a half-million workers nationally who went out on general strike on that day, 40,000 of them in Chicago, the center of the movement. The strike continued until May 3, when striking workers confronted non-union workers leaving the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company; the police shot into the crowd, and three or six workers were killed, depending on newspaper accounts.

The following day, anarchists called for demonstrations near Chicago’s Haymarket on Desplaines Street at Randolph. The rally lasted into the evening, when around 10:30 p.m. the police arrived again, marching in formation. As they advanced to the stage on a hay wagon, someone threw a homemade bomb which exploded, killing one police officer and mortally wounding six others. The police opened fire, killing one and wounding 70 demonstrators; the market was cleared in a matter of minutes.

Arrests and trials resulted in death sentences for seven of the organizers, one of whom committed suicide in his cell rather than go to the gallows. Two others had their sentences commuted to life in prison by Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby. In 1896 Governor John Altgeld pardoned the three surviving prisoners, claiming they were framed in a trial designed to protect the Chicago police and private security guards from the Pinkerton corporation. Altgeld’s pardon was blamed for his failure to win re-election to the governor’s office.

There are statues—a likeness of John Altgeld rendered by Borglum (of Rushmore and Lincoln Memorial fame) in Lincoln Park and a haunting tribute to the Haymarket victims in Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

A third statue commemorating the fallen police officers was dedicated in Haymarket Square in 1889. In 1927, a streetcar operator jumped the tracks and knocked the statue off its pedestal; according to news accounts, he was “sick of looking at that policeman.” The rebuilt statue was repeatedly vandalized, and in 1969 it was blown up by the Weather Underground. Rebuilt again, the statue was blown up again in 1970. Rebuilt again, it remained under 24-hour police guard until, for its own protection, it was finally moved to police headquarters in 1972. In 1975 it was moved to the courtyard of the police academy, and in 2007 rededicated and moved back to an enclosed location at headquarters. Statues have always inspired high emotion.

You can still find a bronze plaque at Randolph and Desplaines. The text simply states that some workers and police died on May 4, 1886, and that’s why much of the world celebrates May 1st as Labor Day.

“But wait!” You may cry, Labor Day is the first Monday of September! Well, the unrest created a political need to do something about Labor, but the May date had become associated with socialists, anarchists and police killers. President Grover Cleveland declared the less controversial September date, which was introduced as a federal holiday in 1894.

That’s the very short history of Labor Day and Chicago, and I’m aware that there is nothing particularly Christian in the retelling of the story, except there is a message about work from scripture.

In Genesis, toil is the consequence of sin (Genesis 3.19). But I don’t think that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they suddenly had to work in ways they had not previously known. I believe it is our sinful nature that alienates work from satisfaction. After the fall, Adam and Eve were doing the same tasks, but they suddenly felt like labor.

Here’s the joy of Christ’s message in Matthew 11.28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are over-burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Learning from Christ, our burden becomes lighter when we discover purpose for our work and meaning in our labor.

As a result, there is a faithful rest for Labor Day. We as followers of Christ can use that day to reflect on the meaning and purpose of our work and how in Christ there is value to our labor. This can be done regardless of the weather on Labor Day.

Laboring to make some sense of it all, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor