While many people think of Labor Day as a three-day weekend on the lake with some good friends and barbecue, the holiday’s unique origins date back to a time when America’s work force was a much different breed of individual, working in very different conditions than the laborers of today.
Always the first Monday in September, the holiday is a creation of the labor movement and dedicated to the achievements of American workers. The first celebration was a gathering of workers from many different labor factions who paraded and celebrated Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City. The event was planned by the Central Labor Union, who passed a resolution “that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the working men in this city.”
While organizers in the Central Labor Union initially believed the celebration would be a flop because few men would want to give up a day of pay, final reports of the day show more than 10,000 men and women in attendance.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the police were scared a riot would break out and were in full force that morning. A newspaper article described the situation as “…men on horseback, men wearing regalia, men with society aprons, and men with flags, musical instruments, badges, and all the other paraphernalia of a procession.”
After the celebration, other localities began honoring the holiday with parades and picnics celebrating workers. In 1887 New York, New Jersey and Colorado approved state legal holidays. Senator James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota proposed legislation to the 53rd Congress making Labor Day a legal holiday. The legislation was approved June 28, 1894.
However, more than 100 years after the first Labor Day holiday it is still unclear who first proposed the holiday. A debate as to whom the founding father of Labor Day is rests somewhere between the tales of two men — Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some records show McGuire, General Secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder in the American Federation of Labor, was the first to suggest a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Many challenge that McGuire initiated the holiday, saying Maguire, a machinist and later secretary of Local 344 Machinists, Patterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.
Both men made outstanding contributions to the American Labor Movement in the late 19th century. This was a time when workers were often forced to work long hours in horrid conditions for little pay. McGuire was a founding member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and through these two unions led strikes that eventually resulted in the eight hour work day.
Maguire also worked tirelessly through the unions to lead strikes intended to open the public’s eyes to the plight of the workers. When President Grover Cleveland signed a law creating a national Labor Day, the Patterson New Jersey Morning Call published an opinion piece citing then Alderman Matthew Maguire the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday and dubbed him the “Father of the Labor Day holiday.”
However, according to newspaper clippings of the day, one in particular entitled “The First Labor Day Parade” by Ted Watts, Maguire’s political beliefs were too radical for the day and too radical for the AFL. The AFL allegedly did not want Labor Day to become associated with the radical politics of Maguire, thus McGuire was given the credit.
Regardless of who gets the credit, the idea spread throughout labor organizations and by 1885 was celebrated in many industrial areas of the country. In 1909, through a resolution at the Federation of Labor convention, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.