By Tom Emery
This weekend, millions of Americans will hit the road, fire up the grill, and swarm to the beaches for the Labor Day weekend. The holiday has evolved dramatically from its origins, which are debated today.
What is clear, though, is the designation of Labor Day as a federal holiday in 1894 arose from a tenuous labor dispute in Illinois. The Pullman strike, remembered today as a landmark in American labor history, caused such ill feelings between workers and the government that President Grover Cleveland, as a conciliatory measure, signed an order establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday on the first Monday of September.
However, Labor Day was nothing new in America. Some believe that its roots are actually Canadian, in an 1872 parade in Toronto to support a strike against a 58-hour work week. A decade later, a proposal was presented at a Central Labor Union meeting in New York in May 1882 for a “monster labor festival” in early September.
The result was the first Labor Day parade, held near city hall and along Broadway in New York on Sept. 5, 1882. Police, concerned that confrontations may occur, surrounded city hall on horseback and on foot, many of them carrying clubs.
An hour later, only a handful of marchers had shown up, and there was no musical accompaniment. Just in time, two hundred members from the Jewelers Union of Newark arrived with a band, and the procession began.
Spectators joined the parade, and finally, some ten to twenty thousand marched through lower Manhattan. At the end, some workers went back to their jobs, but many spent the rest of the day at a party which included speeches, cigars, and “lager beer kegs…mounted in every conceivable place.”
Who suggested the first Labor Day is of considerable debate. Many accounts credit Peter McGuire, the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor.
McGuire reportedly proposed an annual celebration at a CLU meeting on May 12, 1882 to remember those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” He suggested a street parade to “publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” McGuire is said to have witnessed the 1872 commemoration in Toronto, and wanted something similar in the United States.
McGuire’s role, though, has been challenged in recent years by the emergence of the story of Matthew Maguire, a machinist and member of the Knights of Labor, whom some believe first proposed that the CLU organize a celebration of labor.
Adding credence was a recollection by the grand marshal of the 1882 New York parade, who corroborated Maguire’s role. In a 2011 interview, former Department of Labor historian Linda Stinson expressed confidence in the Maguire story.
Peter McGuire’s role may have also been embellished by Samuel Gompers, a close friend and American Federation of Labor powerhouse, who apparently disliked Matthew Maguire’s radical political views that reflected poorly on the AF of L. Maguire ran for Vice President on the National Socialist Labor Party in 1896.
Some states began to observe Labor Day on their own, starting with Oregon in 1887. Colorado, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey followed suit.
Continued labor strife, though, forced the federal government’s hand at designating a national holiday. The Pullman Palace Car strike of May 1894, ignited by layoffs and wage cuts amid unchanging rents in the company town of Pullman, Ill. induced the American Railway Union, under the direction of Eugene Debs, to call for national boycotts of Pullman trains. Rioting, burning of cars, and other violence spread nationwide, and rail traffic was brought to a standstill in many areas.
Throughout the strike, President Grover Cleveland, worried about the political backlash in what was a midterm election year. Democrats, fearing a loss of Congress, and the president proposed a solution – to create a national holiday to honor the American worker, which was already being celebrated in thirty states.
Sen. James Henderson Kyle, a Populist from South Dakota, introduced legislation to designate the first Monday in September as a national holiday. The bill was rushed through Congress, and Cleveland quickly signed the proposal into law on June 28, 1894.
The September date was chosen so there would be no conflict with the International Workers Day celebration of May 1, which harkened back to the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May 1886 and was viewed by many Americans as socialistic or anarchistic.
Six days after signing the bill, Cleveland, ostensibly concerned about interruption of U.S. Mail service, sent in 12,000 federal troops as strikebreakers.
Reports vary, but at least two men were killed by deputy marshals in Kensington, a Chicago suburb. On August 3, the strike was declared over, and Debs was later sentenced to prison as the Pullman employees agreed not to unionize again. The Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1894, and Cleveland was dropped from the ticket in the 1896 election.
Over the decades, Labor Day evolved into a three-day weekend and a shopping and recreational holiday that marks the end of the summer season. Few celebrate Labor Day as a remembrance of working Americans.
Today, union presence in the United States continues to diminish. According to Forbes magazine, less than 12 percent of the American workforce belongs to a union, down from a high of 33.2 percent in 1955.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill.