Life of Peter McGuire, 'Father' Of Labor Day
Labor Day is different from the other holidays of the year. Most holidays are to some 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 a time to honor the strength, commitment, and dedication of the millions of hardworking men and women who fuel America’s labor force. Our union’s founder, Peter J. McGuire, established this day in 1882 to shine a light on the critical role American workers play in creating and sustaining the wealth and prosperity of their country.
Peter J. McGuire, a young carpenter, stood before the New York 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 organizations."
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 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 the 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 January 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 protesters 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 bureau of labor statistics in the United States. 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 November 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 his place in labor history books. On September 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. McGuire's dream became a reality on June 28, 1894, when by an act of Congress, Labor Day became a national holiday.
Although McGuire is generally recognized as the "Father of Labor Day," the claim has raised some controversy. Twenty-one years ago, 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 to 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 September, 1882, rally. Matthew Maguire, however, never claimed to be involved and did not contest McGuire's claim to fame.
"8 Hours for What We Will"
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 success of the eight-hour day would not begin until 1890 when 46,000 members of the Carpenters union began working eight-hour days and an additional 35,000 reduced their hours from ten to nine.
The rigors of office took its toll on McGuire and he resigned his position in 1902 because of 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."
"No festival of martial glory or warrior's renown is this; no pageant pomp of war-like conquest, no glory of fratricidal strife attend this day. It is dedicated to peace, civilization and the triumphs of industry. It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age--a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded."
I would like to wish you and your family a very safe and happy Labor Day weekend.
Sharon K. Williams writes for The Labor Paper, Peoria, Illinois