By Jennifer Butler
Labor Day is not just another day off. The day holds meaning for everyone who has held a job and has contributed to the economic status of the U.S.
As the U.S. observes Labor Day, the first Monday in September, the origins of the holiday are clouded with some doubt about the founder of the labor movement.
While some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, was first in suggesting a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold,” others believe Matthew Maguire, a machinist, founded the holiday.
So the historical question seems to hinge on the fact that the two names sound alike and were probably mixed throughout history. Add this to the years of bitter rivalry between the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor, and multiple names emerge in the legend of Labor Day.
Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York. It is a fact that the Central Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and appointed a committee to plan a demonstration and picnic more than 100 years ago.
In 1884, the first Monday in September was selected as the holiday, as originally proposed, and the Central Labor Union urged similar organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. Original observances were a street parade to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community, followed by a festival for workers and their families. Speeches by prominent men and women were later introduced. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. The Central Labor Union held its second Labor Day holiday just a year later, on Sept. 5, 1883.
Linda Stinson, a former U.S. Department of Labor historian, recalled a specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. “That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882. At that time, the labor movement was growing stronger. Many of the unions in New York prospered by joining together into one Central Labor Union made up of members from many local unions,” she noted.
On May 14, 1882, a proposal was made that all workers should join together for a “monster labor festival” in early September. A committee was appointed to find a park for the celebration. “They chose Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue, the largest park in New York City at that time. The date was set for Tuesday, Sept. 5. By June, they had sold 20,000 tickets with the proceeds going to each local union selling them. In August, the Central Labor Union passed a resolution “that the fifth of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen in this city,” Stinson noted.
At first, leaders feared the celebration would fail. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. “But then slowly they came — 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers,” Stinson said.
The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”
After that major event in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers.
Municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886 was the first recognition by the country’s government to establish a national holiday. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on Feb. 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade, Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.
Seven years after that first New York Labor Day parade, the union journal for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters published an article claiming that their union brother, McGuire, made the original proposal to have the Labor Day event in New York and called for one day a year to be set aside as Labor Day. This article was reprinted yearly, and it became the common assumption that these were the facts.
However, in 1967, a retired machinist from Maguire’s union claimed that his union brother was, in fact, the true originator of the movement for a national Labor Day. He pointed to an old newspaper article written nine years after the New York Labor Day parade titled “Labor Day: Its History and Development in the Land.”
This article claimed that the first Secretary of the Central Labor Union, Maguire, was the one who arranged the parade. This claim was supported six years later when the grand marshal of the New York parade of 1882 reminisced about how Maguire from the Knights of Labor had first suggested that the Central Labor Union call upon the unions of New York City to join together in a labor parade.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor
John Mitchell was a United States labor leader and president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1898 to 1908. His
statue stands on the grounds of Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton, the site of
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