The tainted founder of Labor Day

September 02, 1994|By Thomas V. DiBacco

THE FATHER of Labor Day was Peter J. McGuire, who is not well-known, even among historians.

McGuire grew up in the East just after the Civil War. The son of Irish immigrants, he was forced to go to work at the age of ll. By his own admission, he held almost every kind of a job during his formative years -- except a sword swallower.

McGuire finally found his niche as a carpenter and became the leading force behind the trade's unionization. It was a modest beginning on Aug. 8, l88l, when 36 delegates representing carpenters in ll states formed the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. But with McGuire as the principal administrator, the UBC grew from a few members to 70,000 strong by l900.

At the time of the union's formation, McGuire had some definite ideas about the strategy. Primarily, he believed that the eight-hour work day was critical to its success. The objective was pursued, culminating in a major -- and successful -- strike in l890, thereby assuring the union one of the leading roles among skilled crafts at the time.

Second, McGuire felt that the cause of unionism could be advanced by setting up a holiday for all American laborers. Most likely in the long stretch from July 4 to Thanksgiving. The day would not only provide a period of leisure for the worker, but also permit unions to add to their numbers and image through parades and other demonstrations. McGuire's idea was supported by the UBC, which was successful in organizing the first Labor Day in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, l882. Not surprisingly, editorial reaction was somewhat less than favorable:

"A large force of the working men of this city and neighborhood," reported one publication, "indulged in a parade and picnic yesterday, apparently for the purpose of enjoying a holiday, and at the same time making an exhibition of numerical strength. In the latter respect it was not so imposing a display as was anticipated. Ten thousand men marched through the streets with bands of music, having the recreations of a beer-garden in prospect."

By l893 Labor Day was observed on the first Monday in September by 20 states. In l894 Congress approved a national Labor Day. But McGuire found himself in the midst of an internal struggle that would promote his historical obscurity.

McGuire championed a loose federation of unions within the UBC, whereas others campaigned for a more highly centralized structure. The latter prevailed and McGuire was ousted in 1901 on what was generally believed to be trumped-up charges of embezzling union funds.

McGuire soon faded from the scene, dying in shame as a result of the UBC squabble, leaving future workers without the holiday's founder to rally the troops on the first Monday in September. To be sure, McGuire would be commemorated in the years that followed in the New Jersey town where he was born, but no other American holiday would have so little tie to its historic founder. As a result, Labor Day serves mostly to mark the end of summer and the beginning of fall.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University in Washington.

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