“Labor Day differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year of any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power of glories achieved by one nation or another. Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead; no sect, race, or nation.” – Samuel Gompers
Peter J. McGuire, a young carpenter, stood before New York’s Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882, to suggest an idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor. His idea was simple. The day should “be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organization.”
The trade unionists, enthusiastic about the idea, quickly established a committee to plan the event. The committee chose the first Monday in September because “it would 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.”
McGuire, a man of many talents, became known as the “Father of Labor Day.” He was born into a poor family on July 6, 1852, in a Lower East Side tenement in New York City. His working career began at the age of 13. He held many different jobs and was quoted as saying, “I have been everything but a sword swallower…and sometimes I was so hungry, a sword – with mustard, of course – would have tasted fine.”
Unwilling to accept his lot in life, McGuire found time to study at Cooper Union where he met his lifelong friend, Samuel Gompers. McGuire became interested in the labor movement at 15, when he took a job at a piano factory where the workers had affiliated with the carpenters union. He quickly learned his job, but he also learned about the Socialist International Workingmen’s Association.
He spent the next eight years devoting his time to organizing in the Socialist movement. McGuire’s life became cemented within the labor movement on Jan. 13, 1874, when he marched to Tompkins Square in New York to protest the treatment of workers left jobless from the depression of 1873. Police attacked the thousands of protestors and beat them to the ground. McGuire was beaten along with his friend Gompers. From that date on, McGuire and Gompers devoted their lives to organizing workers.
In 1878, McGuire moved to St. Louis to lobby for the St. Louis Trade and Labor Alliance. His efforts established the first U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Then, he moved back to New York. There he set off on the long road of establishing a national union for carpenters and a national federation for all organized workers. In 1881, his hard work paid off with the formation of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. He became secretary of the organization – which was the highest position within the organization – and editor of the union paper.
McGuire then turned to forming a national federation. He would call the first national convention in Chicago on Nov. 15, 1881, which led to the formation of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada. Five years later, with the help of Gompers, the organization became the American Federation of Labor. Gompers became the president and McGuire the secretary.
When, in May 1882, he stood up before the New York group, McGuire earned himself his place in labor history books. On Sept. 5, 1882, 10,000 workers participated in the first Labor Day parade in New York. The idea quickly caught on and by 1884, every major city held a Labor Day parade.
McGuire, along with other labor dignitaries, then lobbied for a national holiday. His dream became a reality on June 28, 1894, when Labor Day became a national holiday by an act of Congress.
Although McGuire is generally recognized as the “Father of Labor Day,” the claim has raised some controversy. The granddaughter of Matthew Maguire came forward to claim her grandfather was the real “Father of Labor Day.” Maguire, a machinist and one-time secretary of the Machinists Union, had also been part of the Central Labor Union of New York City in 1882.
However, according to published reports of the time, the evidence clearly backs Peter McGuire as the “Father of Labor Day.” Peter McGuire, who helped organize the 1882 meeting, was one of the keynote speakers for the event. Three separate papers,The Carpenter, Truth, and The Irish World, quote him as making the proposal publicly that an annual holiday be declared as labor’s own and that it become universal.
In November 1887, McGuire published in The Carpenter details of the events leading up to the September 1882 rally.
Matthew Maguire, however, never claimed to be involved and did not contest McGuire’s claim to fame.
To McGuire, being known as the “Father of Labor Day” was nothing compared to his fight for the eight-hour workday. The Carpenters Union, of which he was secretary, presented a resolution to the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884, which stated, “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886.” The resolution passed.
This launched the drive across the country for the shorter workday. Workers rallied in cities all over the nation. Thousands of workers took to the streets of their cities, and many workers died for the cause. One such event would become known as the “Haymarket Incident” in Chicago.
The concept of an eight-hour work day did not begin to take hold until 1890, when 46,000 members of the Carpenters Union began working eight-hour days, and an additional 35,000 reduced their hours from 10 to nine.
The rigors of office took their toll on McGuire, and he resigned his position in 1902 because of poor health. McGuire died in 1906 at the age of 54. His last words were, “I’ve got to get to California, the boys of Local 22 need me.”
The New York Labor History Association provided this article by Sharon K. Williams, who writes for The Labor Paper, Peoria, Ill.