The Who, What, Where, When and How of Labor Day. But There’s Some Debate about the “Who”

What we know as the Labor Day holiday today evolved over time. In 19th century America, there was already a tradition of having parades and picnics in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally workers or strikers. But most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day: a parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.

At first there was fear that the celebration was going to be a failure. Most of the workers had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. As the program began, only a handful of workers had shown up . . . but then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union . . . then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time the parade reached the park for the picnic, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers! The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Workers picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more workers came to watch fireworks and dance. Newspapers declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”  After that, the idea of parades and picnics celebrating workers caught on across the country.Labor Day as a national, legal holiday had an interesting evolution. The legalized celebration began as individual state celebrations. In 1887, New York, New Jersey and Colorado were among the first states to approve state legal holidays. Then other states joined in to create their own state Labor Days. Finally, in response to a groundswell of support, Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced S. 730 to the 53rd Congress to make Labor Day a legal holiday on the first Monday of September each year. It was approved on June 28, 1894.

When studying the history of Labor Day, two names stand out, and they sound just alike. One is Peter J. McGuire, an official in the American Federation of Labor and organizer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. The other is Matthew Maguire, a machinist from the Knights of Labor. The problem with declaring a single “founder” of Labor Day is that, at the time, no one realized that a new national holiday was being born. It was only after the fact that people tried to pinpoint the founding father.

Seven years after that first New York Labor Day parade, the magazine for the Carpenters union claimed their union brother, McGuire, made the original proposal to have the Labor Day event in New York and called for one day a year to be set aside as Labor Day. The article was reprinted yearly, so it became the common assumption that these were the facts.

However, in 1967, a retired machinist from Maguire’s union stepped up and claimed that his Machinist union brother was, in fact, the originator of Labor Day. He pointed to a newspaper article written nine years after the New York parade titled “Labor Day: Its History and Development in the Land.” It claimed that the first Secretary of the Central Labor Union, Maguire, was the one who organized the parade. This claim was supported six years later when the grand marshal of the New York parade of 1882 himself reminisced about how Maguire from the Knights of Labor had first suggested the idea.  

So the historical conundrum seems to hinge on the fact that the two names sound alike and were probably mixed up in the common consciousness. Toss in the years of rivalry between the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor and, of course, you’re going to have multiple heroes emerging in the legend of Labor Day.

But this year, we’re going to try to put the argument to a rest, and let workers across America cast their ballot for who they think is the true father of Labor Day: So it’s McGuire v. Maguire!