Labor Day, which takes place on the first Monday in September, is celebrated in recognition of the social and economic achievements of American workers. Originally, Labor Day wasn’t meant for folks like me . . . but real workers. The roll up your sleeves, let’s get down to business kind of workers. Like Rosie there. It’s no surprise then, that Labor Day can trace its roots to the construction industry.
Labor Day dates back over a hundred years to 1894. There is some debate as to who first proposed Labor Day. Some argue that it was Matthew Maguire, a machinist and union activist with the Central Labor Union. Others argue that it was Peter J. McGuire, a carpenter and co-founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, who first proposed the holiday in 1882 after seeing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada.
McGuire, a New York City native, was a real rabble-rouser in his day. A political activist before he became a trade unionist, McGuire agitated for unemployment benefits and an eight-hour work day as founder of the Social Democratic Workingmens Party of North America, a socialist organizations that sought to achieve socialism through the organization of trade unions. He also founded and edited a socialist paper known as “The Toiler,” and toured the United States lecturing for the party while supporting himself as a carpenter during the 1870s.
McGuire later founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in 1881. McGuire served as the sole leader of the union for its first 20 years, paying union expenses out of his own pocket, and somewhat ironically was voted out of office in 1902, after he was arrested for embezzlement when an audit of the union’s records found that approximately $10,000 could not be accounted for. Before being voted out of office, McGuire addressed the delegates at the 1902 carpenters’ convention, stating “[A] man wears out like a piece of machinery . . . I am not lost entirely in this world but I have enough to wreck me physically, destroy me mentally.” He died four years later, his death hastened by alcoholism, likely due to the betrayal of his union brothers.
Labor Day’s political beginnings extend as well to its recognition as a federal holiday and its celebration on the first Monday of September. Legislation establishing Labor Day as a federal holiday was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894, just six days following the deaths of 30 workers as thousands of U.S. Marshals and some 12,000 U.S. Army troops descended on workers to quell the Pullman Strike which had paralyzed the nation’s railroads. The celebration of Labor Day on the first Monday of September, rather than the more widespread International Workers Day on May 1st, was selected not only for the very practical reason that the Pullman Strike occurred in the Summer of 1894 (and May 1st was a long, long time away), but also out of concern that observing Labor Day on the same day as International Workers Day would associate the holiday not only with workers but with nascent Communist, Syndicalist, and Anarchist movements which were beginning to take root following the Panic of 1893.