Op-Ed

Labor Day was created to generate support for World War I

Labor Day parades exhibited to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.
Labor Day parades exhibited to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations. Dept. of Labor

One doesn't associate the celebration of Labor Day with wartime, and the early history of the first Monday in September, made national in scope by congressional legislation in 1894, bears out that tendency.

For the first military engagement of the United States after 1894 — the Spanish-American War — was brief, lasting from April to August 1898.

Even when the nation entered World War I in April 1917, wartime really didn't have an effect on the homeland psyche until October, when American troops arrived in Europe in great numbers.

Still, the nation needed labor’s support for the Great War, especially in view of the fact that more than 400 strikes broke out shortly after U.S. entry.

Indeed, a good case can be made that Congress legislated a national labor day to take the steam out of radical, often violent strikes that punctuated the nation in the 1890s.

And because unionized labor was still unaccepted in many areas, the federal and state governments in a war economy had to ensure that cooperation with organized workers was essential.

The creation of the National War Labor Board to mediate disputes aided in this effort, as did President Woodrow Wilson's aspirational rhetoric in addressing workers. “This is, therefore,” said Wilson, “the war of all wars, which labor should support and support with all its concentrated power.”

So Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1918, was a somber milestone. To be sure, by then Americans had grown war-weary, with absolutely no expectation that an armistice would be signed just a couple months later.

The Washington Herald’s headline said it all: “War-Worked Capital Quiet on Labor Day: Lull Hangs Over City During Gasless Sunday and Holiday.”

There were no parades in the nation’s capital, and union workers had to venture to the blue-collar stronghold of Baltimore to rally members, for, as the Herald put it, “the Central Labor Union of Washington did not hold any celebration because of the lack of interest in everything except winning the war.”

So Washingtonians spent the day in parks and recreation centers, with the downtown area described as a “deserted village.”

With gasoline rationed, the zoo was a popular attraction, as were athletic fields where impromptu activities arose as spectators arrived.

And, of course, there was bathing in the Potomac River, where a new beach had been constructed, attendees of which surprised by a brief visit of President Wilson, who chose not, much to the disappointment of the crowd, to take a dip.

The most moving aspect occurred in the afternoon when airplanes, in D.C. and cities throughout the nation, flew over populated areas and dropped single sheets of printed material, on one side featuring a miner in overalls and a soldier in a trench helmet with a series of quotations: “American boys in France are calling to you. A voice is coming across the waters saying, ‘Give us the toil of your hand.’

“Give — for they are the relatives and friends you knew when the world was at peace.”

“Their battle is your battle. We are all brothers in arms. They are fighting for victory.”

“The battle line extends into every factory and machine shop in the United States.”

“… We are in this struggle to the bitter end. We will never let those boys say we did not support them to the very last ounce of our strength.”

Major League Baseball decided, with a push from the feds, that the season would end on Labor Day, not because interest in fans was weak, but because it simply was the right choice to make, given the dire situation of the world at large and the probability that players needed to be put in military uniforms. Instead of 154 games, 140 games were played. And the World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, began quickly thereafter, on Sept. 5, when for the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner,” not the national anthem until 1931, was played at a sports event.

The Herald’s words about the last Washington game were riveting: “The last ball was thrown. The last man was out. Baseball was done. But the crowd lingered. Baseball was no more in Washington 'until we and our allies’ are in Berlin.”

Even more riveting was the presence of 3,000 American soldiers at the last game. Again, the Herald's moving description: “Some of them only stood straight. They had no arms with which to salute. Others stood as straight as they could, held up by their crutches. Some had left their arms, others their legs, in No Man’s Land in France.”

Compounding matters was a terrible villain arising almost synonymously with Labor Day, namely, influenza, which spread throughout the nation like wildfire. In the District of Columbia alone, where large numbers of military personnel were coming and going, a grand total of 33,719 cases of influenza was diagnosed from Oct. 1, 1918, to Feb. 1, 1919. Almost 2,900 deaths were recorded from the disease.

Thomas V. DiBacco, a 1959 Rollins College graduate, is professor emeritus at American University.

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