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Labor Day: An homage to the American worker

Ivan Natividad
Staff Writer
Children march in the 1963 New York City Labor Day parade. Since the very first celebration, Labor Day has been a time for families to relax and have fun.
U.S. Department of Labor |

For more than 130 years workers, citizens and organizations from around the country have celebrated Labor Day out of respect to the American worker. The annual celebration consists of parades, floats and special events held in cities around the nation in dedication to the social and economic achievements our country has experienced throughout the years, because of its workforce.

“We set aside Labor Day to honor the working men and women of America,” President Barack Obama said Saturday during his Labor Day address. “So… Whether you’re firing up the grill, fired up for some college football, or filling up the car for one last summer road trip — Happy Labor Day weekend.”

Held on the first Monday of September, Labor Day got governmental recognition through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. The first state bill to secure legislation for Labor Day was in New York. In February 1887, though, Oregon became the first state to pass a law honoring Labor Day.

During that same year four other states officially made Labor Day a celebrated holiday. By 1894, 23 other states joined them, and Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia.

While the U.S. Department of Labor credits Peter McGuire, leader of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, as the founder of Labor Day, recent research suggests that the true father of Labor Day may have actually been Matthew Maguire, a famous union leader from the 19th Century.

Lore has it that in May 1882, Peter McGuire stood before the New York Central Labor Union to suggest the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor saying, Labor Day should “be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

Through the American Federation of Labor and the Carpenter’s union, McGuire led the strikes of 1886 and 1890, which would lead to the adoption of the nation’s eight-hour workday.

“The things we often take for granted – Social Security and Medicare, workplace safety laws and the right to organize for better pay and benefits, even weekends – we didn’t always have these things,” Obama said Saturday. “Workers and the unions who get their back had to fight for them. And those fights built a stronger middle class.”

Research found at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark reveals, that in the 1870s, Matthew Maguire led several strikes, most of which were intended to force the struggle of manufacturing workers and their long hours into the public consciousness. By 1882, Maguire became a leader in the Central Labor Union of New York.

After President Grover Cleveland signed into law the creation of a national Labor Day, various local newspapers dubbed Maguire “the undisputed author of Labor Day,” and the “Father of the Labor Day holiday.”

According to the book The First Labor Day Parade, by Ted Watts, Maguire was initially shunned as being the founder of Labor Day because of his political beliefs, which were considered radical for the time.

Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor, allegedly, did not want Labor Day to become associated with Maguire’s politics, so in a 1897, Gompers nudged close friend Peter McGuire to be assigned credit for Labor Day. Years later, though, there is still doubt to who first proposed the holiday for workers.

Labor Day was first celebrated on September 5, 1882, in New York City. The festivities were organized by the city’s Central Labor Union which urged other organizations in other cities to follow the example of New York and celebrate the workingman’s holiday on that same date.

Labor organizations around the nation agreed, and in 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in most industrial areas of the country.

The Labor Day celebration’s model took on the outline of a street parade, followed by a recreational festival for workers and their families to enjoy. This structure became the pattern for Labor Day celebrations to this day.

Speeches by public figures were later added, as more emphasis on the economic and civic significance of the holiday was placed on the celebration. For some, though, the holiday has become an avenue to express their political preferences as individuals and groups.

In his Labor day address Saturday, President Obama said “America deserves a raise,” speaking about his administrations desire to raise the minimum wage, which, is believed by some to be a partisan issue.

Congressman Larry Bucshon (R-IN), gave the republican response to Obama’s speech, saying “the current administration is waging a war” on reliable sources of energy that fund jobs for workers, adding that Obama’s policies “just don’t make sense.”

Though the holiday has been used for political fodder, it’s significance to American history, and the current national landscape is undeniable, as we continue to see citizens celebrate Labor Day in honor of our everyday workers.

To contact Staff Writer Ivan Natividad, email inatividad@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.

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