Unions behind origins of Labor Day

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Peter McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters

Facts about the
U.S. labor force

Labor Day: The first observance of Labor Day is believed to have been
a parade of 10,000 workers on
Sept. 5, 1882. By 1893, more than half the states were observing “Labor Day” on one day or another, and Congress passed a bill to establish a federal holiday in 1894. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill soon afterward, designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

Who’s being recognized: There were 153.2 million people aged 16 and older in the nation’s labor force in
July 2011. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 14.8 million of those workers are in a union.

Hard-earned pay: The 2009 real median earnings for male and female full-time, year-round workers, respectively, was $47,127 and $36,278.

Hot jobs: The projected percentage growth from 2008 to 2018 in the number of network systems and data communication analysts is 53 percent. Forecasters expect this occupation to grow at a faster rate than any other. Meanwhile, the occupation expected to add more positions over this period than any other is registered nurse (581,500).

Source: United States Census Bureau

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While the person attributed with founding Labor Day has been a topic of historical debate for decades, many believe the United Brotherhood of Carpenters was integral in the holiday’s origin.

Depending on who you ask, the national holiday that Americans have celebrated on the first Monday in September for more than a century with parades, picnics and other gatherings, was founded by a man named either McGuire or Maguire.

Many credit carpenter Peter McGuire with founding the holiday, while others believe it was machinist Matthew Maguire who first proposed the Labor Day holiday in the late 19th century.

Peter McGuire was a founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and later its general secretary.

Born in 1852 in New York City, McGuire began working at a piano factory where he faced long hours, low wages and difficult working conditions. According to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ website, this is where McGuire first realized the importance of union organization.

In 1881, he organized a Chicago convention to form a union. Representatives from 11 cities joined him, and over four spirited days they produced a constitution and structure, the website states. The UBC was born, with McGuire as its first general secretary.

He later became co-founder of the American Federation of Labor.

McGuire also suggested a day to “honor those who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold” — in other words, Labor Day.

The first major organized parade and picnic to honor Labor Day was held in New York City in September 1882. Labor Day became a national holiday 12 years later through a law introduced by South Dakota Sen. James Henderson Kyle.

“I don’t think this is a coincidence that this happens as manufacturing is booming and the United States is on the verge of becoming the world’s leading industrialized nation,” said Carl Fillichio, senior advisor for communications and public affairs with the U.S. Department of Labor. “Americans of all stripes recognize that this isn’t possible without workers.”

Labor Day as a national, legal holiday has had an interesting evolution. The legalized celebration of Labor Day began as individual state celebrations. In 1887, New York, New Jersey and Colorado were among the first states to approve state legal holidays. Other states subsequently joined in to create their own state Labor Days.

Finally, in response to the groundswell of support for a national holiday celebrating the nation’s workers, Sen. Kyle introduced Senate Bill 730 to the 53rd Congress to make Labor Day a legal holiday on the first Monday of September. The bill was signed into law on June 28, 1894.

Traditions already existed in the late 19th century of having parades, picnics and various other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. Many of those same labor issues were brought to the forefront by McGuire, who worked tirelessly to keep the union alive in those early years.

“But most historians point to one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day,” Fillichio said. “That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.”

He said the labor movement, at that time, was growing stronger. Many of the unions in New York prospered by joining together into one Central Labor Union made up of members from many local unions. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay to participate.

Fillichio said when the parade began only a handful of workers participated, while hundreds stood on the sidewalk and jeered. But then slowly they started to join their brothers in the parade. A group from the Jewelers’ Union joined the parade and was followed by a group from the Bricklayers’ Union.

When the parade had reached its destination at Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue, it was estimated that more than 10,000 people were marching in support of workers.

“No doubt there is debate over who founded Labor Day,” Fillichio said. “But there is no question that Labor Day — and the impromptu parades, rallies and celebrations that preceded it — has always been, and always will be, about honoring the contributions and sacrifices of the workers who built this great nation.”

Provided by Custom Media Solutions, for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters