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This newspaper recorded the events of Labor Day 1904 with unusual enthusiasm, describing a parade of more than 2,000 union members in Bangor as “filled with good-fellowship and triumph … a potent example typified in thousands of silent, stalwart men, of the strength and force and dignity which labor organization brings.”
In particular it admired the keynote address delivered by J.F. Sheehan of Massachusetts, who laid the groundwork for the development of unions.
“It is often said that the union men of America are discontented,” Sheehan said. “If this be so — and I deny it not — then it is a virtue and not a vice. The discontent that urges a man to rise above the lowly station where his lot is cast; that makes more money, better homes, nobler men and truer women; that has shortened the hours of labor and improved the scale of pay; that has given the United States the political liberty and social equality which it enjoys now; and which lastly, the trade unions of the land are going to ferment until it has equalized the scale between employers and employed until the American working man can stand up to all the world and say: ‘I am a man, with a man’s feelings and a man’s rights; I will be the faithful employ of any; but the unconsidered slave of none’ — this discontent, I say, must be hailed as a glory rather than as a sin!”
Ever since President Grover Cleveland signed an act making the first Monday in September a legal holiday to honor America’s workers, Labor Day has been a holiday of conflicting themes, an odd mixture of the somber and the frivolous. Even 19th century labor organizer Peter J. McGuire, credited with conceiving Labor Day, admitted the holiday designed to honor work was timed to “come at the most pleasant season of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and would fill a wide gap in the chronology of legal holidays.”
This Labor Day, of course, comes as Americans continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. Early in the pandemic, the U.S. unemployment rate soared to historic highs as businesses shuttered — some temporarily, too many for good — and Americans stayed home under orders aimed at reducing the spread of the deadly virus.
A dispiriting 18 months into the pandemic, lives remain disrupted. Many Americans are still working from home. Schools have reopened, but parents continue to worry about outbreaks that could close classrooms, once again forcing them to juggle jobs and classwork.
So, the watchword this holiday weekend, which often marks an unofficial end of summer, is caution. On Thursday, Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reminded Mainers that they should get vaccinated if they haven’t already, avoid large gatherings, stay spread apart and wear face masks indoors, particularly as they consider visiting family and friends over the Labor Day weekend.