How Wikipedia is helping to rewrite the history of the labor movement.
Yesterday was Labor Day, and the first thing I did when I sat down to work through it was Google "Labor Day."
Because, let's be honest—do you remember the holiday's history, really? Well, you might say, stalling as you wait for Wikipedia to load, it's about the American worker, so—ah: "Labor Day in the United States is a public holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September. It honors the American labor movement and the contributions that workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of their country." Sure. But I don't know a whole lot of people who were raising their glasses to Eugene Debs their extra day off.
Given that Labor Day is just about our least-understood national holiday—today, we know it better as one of our most reliable three-day-weekend/beach day enablers, a proto Black Friday retail sale stretch, or the subject of outdated jokes about the temporal limits of wearing white—that Wikipedia page is now the portal through which most of us learn anything at all about the supposed worker's holiday. It's one of the few times the droves of people who Google "Labor Day" on Labor Day will happen upon information about the early labor movement.
It's also a case study in how Wikipedia pages reflect the times they're edited in, as well as their volunteer creators' attitudes and whims: Since its 2001 inception, the "Labor Day" page has hosted a battle between the forces of political ideology, vandalism, and dull specificity.
Continuing to read said page today, you find the following: "Labor Day was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, who organized the first parade in New York City. After the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886, U.S. President Grover Cleveland feared that commemorating Labor Day on May 1 could become an opportunity to commemorate the affair. Therefore, in 1887, the United States holiday was established in September." All of which is presented void of context, I might add—who remembers the Knights of Labor? And why were they organizing?
If you happen to read below the navigational fold—which is, what, 2 percent of us—you might then discover a brief mention of the true genesis of Labor Day as a federal holiday. It came about directly after Cleveland rallied 14,000 US Marshals to bust the Pullman Strike, one of the biggest of the era, left dozens of workers dead, and was desperate for a pro-labor diversion. As a recent Jacobin story pointed out, Labor Day is the product of the labor movement's defeat, not its victory—but the page might at least fully explain the event, or what the day came to mean for the American working class?
There's nothing on the Wikipedia page about the conditions during the Gilded Age that gave rise to the labor movement or its achievements that we might be celebrating—the limits to the working day and the working week (that we have weekends at all), workplace protections, and so on. It's a reflection of how little regard there is for the holiday's supposed honorees that the page doesn't list a single reason we should honor them.
This is, more or less, how the page has always been. Since its creation on November 1, 2001 by Torontonian computer manual and sci-fi writer Paul Drye, the page has been edited 2,178 times by 1,333 different authors. Few have sought to include more than a passing reference to the holiday's labor movement roots, if any at all. Some have actively swept any reference to organized labor away.
The current iteration is, however, a major improvement to "Labor Day" pages past. The very first "Labor Day" page, published in November, 2001, didn't even mention "labor" apart from the title—it just noted the date of the holiday, and that it was apparently a high-traffic weekend and a popular time for young people to get drunk. It stayed in that form for four years. In August 2005, for the first time, the page was edited to mention the Knights of Labor, the Haymarket riots, and Grover Cleveland. In March 2006, an addendum was made to note the popularity of Jerry Lewis's telethon for muscular dystrophy.
Because it is Wikipedia, in November of the same year, the entire page was replaced with a single line of text: "I want to bang you hard like a bang bang bang ya ya rock it hard in da butt." The preceding page was quickly restored.
It wasn't until 2007 that the Pullman strike was edited into the page at all, and then, incorrectly—the page states that Cleveland signed the law establishing Labor Day as a holiday four days before violently crushing the strike, when it was in fact six days after. Later that same year, an edit does add mention of one of the labor movement's victories, under the then-section 'Controversies': "In 1886 came the general strike which eventually won the eight-hour workday in the United States. These events are today commemorated as Labor Day in virtually every country in the world, with the notable exceptions being the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand."
Yes, someone was donating free labor to the Labor Day page on Labor Day
By summer, however, hundreds of edits later, any mention of the Pullman strike had been stricken, and the entire history section was replaced with "Culture" and "Miscellaneous" sections that mention football, picnics, and partying—but nothing about the labor movement itself. The page devolved into a sort of stub, and for years was devoid of any serious mention of labor at all, beyond it being a "holiday for the working man"—kind of odd for an article about a holiday called Labor Day. It wasn't until two years later, in 2009 that the Pullman strike was brought back into the fold. (Today, the Pullman Strike page it links to is very dubious too; it's framed unsympathetic to the striking workers, but that's another story.)
It goes on and on like this—oscillating between barely bothering to mention the labor movement and doing away with the history altogether. Some of the edits, to be sure, could likely be attributed to the political leanings of the editors—anyone can edit Wikipedia, of course. And every major page on Wikipedia is the product of the many, many back-and-forth edits and behind-the-scenes clashes between ideologies and conceptions of accuracy and specificity. But look what was happening to union membership during the same period those editors were buffing the page:
Anti-labor sentiment grew increasingly popular, and union membership was continuing a period of precipitous decline (over the same period of course, wages have stagnated). So it's not just Wikipedia, which actually has a remarkable track record for overall accuracy, and is the product of hundreds of voices—one study famously found the site as accurate an encyclopedia as the Britannica. More likely, as we've grown distant from organized labor we've lost track of an important slice of history.
Too bad, too. Yesterday, millions of American workers labored on through the holiday, many of them without benefits or protections enjoyed by their forebears, part of the perennially part-time or underemployed—the precariat, some scholars call them—through what inequality-focused economists like Paul Krugman and Thomas Picketty have termed the New Gilded Age. The least those workers might expect from the web's top nonprofit knowledge depot is a solid explanation of how all this has happened before, and how labor organized to improve its lot—even on a page about a labor holiday created by a union-busting president.
There's hope, though: Even on the day itself, there were multiple edits—yes, someone was donating free labor to the Labor Day page on Labor Day.
There was an edit added, nearer the end of the afternoon:
It was an external link to the Jacobin piece, about how important the labor movement was, but how Labor Day was bullshit.