[Originally published on this blog on Labor Day, 2011]
It\’s clear that the first Labor Day celebration was held on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, and organized by the Central Labor Union, an early trade union organization operating in the greater New York City area in the 1880s. By the early 1890s, more than 20 states had adopted the holiday. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law: \’\’The first Monday of September in each year, being the day celebrated and known as Labor\’s Holiday, is hereby made a legal public holiday, to all intents and purposes, in the same manner as Christmas, the first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the thirtieth day of May, and the fourth day of July are now made by law public holidays.\”
What is less well-known, at least to me, is that the very first Labor Day parade almost didn\’t happen, and that historians now dispute which person is most responsible for that first Labor Day. The U.S. Department of Labor tells how first Labor Day almost didn\’t happen, for lack of a band:
\”On the morning of September 5, 1882, a crowd of spectators filled the sidewalks of lower Manhattan near city hall and along Broadway. They had come early, well before the Labor Day Parade marchers, to claim the best vantage points from which to view the first Labor Day Parade. A newspaper account of the day described \”…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.\”
The police, wary that a riot would break out, were out in force that morning as well. By 9 a.m., columns of police and club-wielding officers on horseback surrounded city hall.
By 10 a.m., the Grand Marshall of the parade, William McCabe, his aides and their police escort were all in place for the start of the parade. There was only one problem: none of the men had moved. The few marchers that had shown up had no music.
According to McCabe, the spectators began to suggest that he give up the idea of parading, but he was determined to start on time with the few marchers that had shown up. Suddenly, Mathew Maguire of the Central Labor Union of New York (and probably the father of Labor Day) ran across the lawn and told McCabe that two hundred marchers from the Jewelers Union of Newark Two had just crossed the ferry — and they had a band!
Just after 10 a.m., the marching jewelers turned onto lower Broadway — they were playing \”When I First Put This Uniform On,\” from Patience, an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. The police escort then took its place in the street. When the jewelers marched past McCabe and his aides, they followed in behind. Then, spectators began to join the march. Eventually there were 700 men in line in the first of three divisions of Labor Day marchers.
With all of the pieces in place, the parade marched through lower Manhattan. The New York Tribune reported that, \”The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization.\”
At noon, the marchers arrived at Reservoir Park, the termination point of the parade. While some returned to work, most continued on to the post-parade party at Wendel\’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue; even some unions that had not participated in the parade showed up to join in the post-parade festivities that included speeches, a picnic, an abundance of cigars and, \”Lager beer kegs… mounted in every conceivable place.\”
From 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. that night, nearly 25,000 union members and their families filled the park and celebrated the very first, and almost entirely disastrous, Labor Day.\”
As to the originator of Labor Day, the traditional story I learned back in the day gave credit to Peter McGuire, the founder of the Carpenters Union and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. At a meeting of the Central Labor Union of New York on May 8, 1882, the story went, he recommended that Labor Day be designated to honor \”those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.\” McGuire also typically received credit for suggesting the first Monday in September for the holiday, \”as 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.\” He envisioned that the day would begin with a parade, \”which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,\” and then continue with \”a picnic or festival in some grove.
But in recent years, the International Association of Machinists have also staked their claim, because one of their members named Matthew Maguire, a machinist, was serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York in 1882 and who clearly played a major role in organizing the day. The U.S. Department of Labor has a quick summary of the controversy.
\”According to the New Jersey Historical Society, after President Cleveland signed into law the creation of a national Labor Day, The Paterson (N.J.) Morning Call published an opinion piece entitled, \”Honor to Whom Honor is Due,\” which stated that \”the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.\” This editorial also referred to Maguire as the \”Father of the Labor Day holiday. …
According to The First Labor Day Parade, by Ted Watts, Maguire held some political beliefs that were considered fairly radical for the day and also for Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor. Allegedly, Gompers did not want Labor Day to become associated with the sort of \”radical\” politics of Matthew Maguire, so in a 1897 interview, Gompers\’ close friend Peter J. McGuire was assigned the credit for the origination of Labor Day.\”