Once upon a time, Labor Day represented something other than a three-day weekend that signaled the end of summer.
In the late 19th century, working class Americans – often immigrant families – had no “weekend” because they worked six or seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day. No paid vacations. No sick leave. Very few breaks each day.
On Monday 04 September 1882, The New York Times ran a small blurb on page 8-of-8.
WORKING MEN’S PARADE AND PICNIC.The Central Labor Union met yesterday afternoon at Clarendon Hall. The Committee on Arrangements for the working men’s parade and picnic to-morrow reported that they had all the money needed to defray expenses, and would probably have a surplus…
The organizers of this “Demonstration of Labor, Mammoth Festival, Parade and Pic-Nic”:
- the New York Central Labor Union (CLU), which represented unions of skilled workers, and
- the Knights of Labor, which saw the “economic changes of industrial capitalism” as exploitive and contrary to the “republican ideals of the American Revolution.”
These organizers were trying to unify union workers and shorten both the work week and day..
Trades represented in the parade included bricklayers, cigar-makers, jewelers, longshoremen, piano-makers, shoemakers and typographers.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor:
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 (emphasis added).
The Sixth National Assembly of the Knights of Labor was meeting in New York. Terence Powderly, “the most distinguished labor leader in the country,” along with most of the 76 delegates representing the union’s 42,517 members, waited at Union Square for the parade to pass by.
At 11:00 am, Grand Marshal William G. McCabe joined them on the stand to watch the parade.
“Nearly all were well clothed,” The New York Times reported, “and some wore attire of fashionable cut. The great majority smoked cigars …”
The march up Fifth Avenue “symbolized the economic antipodes of the times. Hundreds of men who labored ten to twelve hours, six days a week, for the standard daily wage of two dollars, tramped through the most ostentatious corridor of wealth and power in America.”
And New Yorkers turned out to watch. From The Sun (gushing):
As far ahead as one could see and as far down the side streets as forms and faces could be distinguished, 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.
How many marched? Who knows?
The Sun estimated 12,000 men; the Irish World, at between 15,000 and 20,000; The Savannah Morning News and the Portland [ME] Daily Express, 20,000. McCabe, on the other hand, estimated “nearly 4,000 men.”
Each risked losing his job.
Papers also reported signs carried by workers:
- “All men were born alike and equal”
- “Close the stores at 6 p.m.”
- “Eight hours for a legal day’s work”
- “Labor built this Republic, labor shall rule it”
- “Labor pays all taxes”
- “No man can make land hence no individual should own it”
- “The true remedy is organization and the ballot”
Some of those signs would not be out of place in a Labor Day parade today, 140 years later, if we still had labor-focused parades.
The Washington, D.C. Evening Critic called the parade “one of the largest processions ever seen in New York.”
The following day, the Savannah Morning News called the event a “Monster Parade” on its front page. (It did not make the front page of most New York papers.) The New York Tribune dissed the parade and called the labor organizers “demagogues… It is a pity that workingmen allow themselves to be so cheapened.”
When did Labor Day go national?
During 1887 four additional states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York — enacted a the Labor Day holiday. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania had Labor Day holidays.
By 1894, 30 states had adopted the holiday.
Which 14 had not? My guess is that 12 of them were Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. It’s possible that Idaho and Wyoming were the other two, as they joined the union in 1890.
Finally 0n 28 June 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the bill passed by the 53rd Congress (S 730) that designated the first Monday in September an official holiday.
How do you organize thousands in 1882?
Planning for the parade began in May. As the story goes, Peter J. McGuire, who founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, suggested a celebration for labor.* CLU would pick September 5th “because it fell roughly halfway between the Fourth of July holiday and Thanksgiving.”
A week later, CLU appointed five men to find a suitable park. Two weeks later, they had secured the largest park in New York City.
This was not yet the era of the telephone, although Alexander Graham Bell got his a patent in 1876. Telephones weren’t in everyone’s house or apartment. So word-of-mouth was the primary means.
Each union CLU representative spread the word among their union members. They sold 20,000 tickets to the picnic. As incentive, ticket sale proceeds went to the organization making the sale.
Canada came first
The first Labour Day in North America took place in Canada on 15 April 1872. It was five years after Confederation, and even though the United Kingdom had begun repealing anti-union laws, Canada had not.
The Toronto Trades Assembly, the organizer, had 27 union members by 1872. The historic event drew an estimated crowd of 10,000 as union members marched through the streets, accompanied by four bands.
One of the prime reasons for organizing the demonstration was to demand the release of 24 leaders of the Toronto Typographical Union, who had been imprisoned for the “crime” of striking to gain a nine-hour working day.
The Typographical Union** had begun pressing for a 58-hour work week in 1869. Employers, including The Globe, derided the shorter work week request as “foolish,” “absurd,” and “unreasonable.” They went on strike 25 March 1872.
On 03 September 1872, seven unions in Toronto parade would hold another parade, reportedly more than a mile long.
In Canada, Labour Day became an official holiday on 23 July 1894. It is celebrated on the first Monday in September.
Some form of “labor day” is celebrated around the world. In much of Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, it is known International Workers’ Day and is celebrated on May 1st. New Zealand celebrates on the fourth Monday in October. In Australia, the date varies by state.
From The Conversation, when labor wins, it still loses:
As the U.S. economy expanded beyond farming and basic manufacturing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became important for businesses to find consumers interested in buying the products and services being produced in ever greater amounts. Shortening the work week was one way of turning the working class into the consuming class (emphasis added).
While the first Labor Day was created by striking, the idea of a special holiday for workers was easy for politicians to support. It was easy because proclaiming a holiday, like Mother’s Day, costs legislators nothing and benefits them by currying favor with voters.
At the center of the debate is a Central Labor Union meeting that took place in May 1882. In an 1897 article in The Carpenter, a monthly union publication, McGuire wrote that he first proposed the holiday at that meeting. The parade’s grand marshal, William McCabe, later recalled, in an 1897 article in The Cleveland Recorder, that Maguire, not McGuire, proposed the idea at that meeting.
**The International Typographical Union represented American and Canadian workers in the printing trade. It had been founded as the National Typographical Union representing only American workers.