The Last Word:
When the Irish Did Apply
By Edward T. O'Donnell, Contributor
August / September 2000
This September 5 will mark the 118th anniversary of the nation’s first commemoration of Labor Day. On that day in 1882, thousands of New York City workers took the day off to participate in festivities honoring honest toil and the rights of labor. Its success testified to labor’s rising power and growing sense of unity in the Gilded Age. It also exemplified the central role played by Irish workers in the labor movement of that era. Second only to St. Patrick’s Day, Labor Day is the American holiday born out of the Irish-American experience.
The Irish connection to the Labor Day holiday begins with the founding of the organization that sponsored the event, the Central Labor Union. It had come into existence only months earlier, in January 1882, when Irish immigrant Robert Blissert called a rally of the city’s workers in support of the Irish nationalist movement known as the Land League. Toward the end of the rally they approved a motion to form a local labor federation to promote the interests of workers. Even as the Land League disintegrated in mid-1882, the CLU grew rapidly, reaching 56 member unions with 80,000 members by summer’s end.
It was also an Irishman who first proposed the idea of establishing in early September “a festive day [for] a parade through the streets of the city.” Yet the precise identity of that Irishman remains a mystery. Some accounts say it was Peter “P.J.” McGuire, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (and future cofounder of the AFL), who proposed the idea at a May meeting of the CLU. Others argue that it was machinist Matthew Maguire who deserves the title “Father of Labor Day.” Official bragging rights aside, both Irish-American labor activists played crucial roles in establishing the Labor Day holiday.
After months of preparation, the chosen day – September 5, 1882 – finally arrived. Fittingly, workers had selected as the parade’s first Grand Marshal an Irishman named William G. McCabe, a popular member of Local No. 6 of the International Typographers Union. No one knew how many workers would turn out. Few could expect their employers to grant them a day off. Indeed, in that era of anti-labor hostility, workers feared getting fired and blacklisted for labor union activity. When McCabe arrived an hour before the parade’s start, the fears of several parade organizers seemed confirmed – only a few dozen workers stood milling about.
By the time the parade touched off at 10:00 a.m., McCabe had managed to assemble some 400 men and a brass band. Initially, marchers faced ridicule from bystanders and interruptions in the line of march because policemen refused to stop traffic at intersections. Soon, however, the jeers turned into cheers as the spectacle of labor solidarity grew more impressive. As the parade continued north up Broadway, it swelled in size as union after union fell into line from side streets.
As they walked, workers held aloft signs with messages such as “Labor Built This Republic. Labor Shall Rule It”; “Less Work and More Pay”; “To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth”; and “Strike with the Ballot.” Some workers wore their traditional work uniforms and aprons, others dressed in their holiday best for the occasion. Many craft organizations pulled wagons that displayed their handiwork.
Midway through the parade, the throng passed a reviewing stand at Union Square. Among the many dignitaries was Terence Powderly, Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, the most powerful labor organization in the nation. Powderly, the son of Irish immigrants, was not only a labor leader, but also a member of the secret revolutionary Irish nationalist organization, Clan na Gael, as well as a prominent Land League activist.
After moving up Fifth Avenue, past the opulent homes of tycoons like Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Gould (and a few of the Irish upper class like dry goods millionaire A.T. Stewart and shipping magnate William R. Grace), the grand procession of 5,000 or more terminated at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. There participants boarded elevated trains – extra cars had been added to handle the anticipated crowds – for a short ride to Wendel’s Elm Park, at West 92nd Street and Ninth Avenue, for a massive picnic. Tickets for the event were just 25 cents, and by late afternoon upwards of 25,000 workers and their families jammed the park to participate in the festivities and consume copious amounts of food and drink. Members of individual craft unions gathered under banners put up throughout the park. Several bands provided music, while speaker after speaker held forth from various stages and soapboxes.
With such an impressive start, the idea of an annual “Labor Day” and parade quickly gained popularity among labor activists and organizations across the country. The New York parade and subsequent picnic caught on among workers because, unlike the traditional forms of public display by labor (such as striking and picketing), the event drew together workers for the purposes of celebration. As P.J. McGuire later wrote of the parade:
“No festival of martial glory or warrior’s renown is this; no pageant pomp of warlike conquest…attend this day… It is dedicated to Peace, Civilization, and the triumphs of Industry. It is a demonstration of fraternity and the harbinger of a better age – a more chivalrous time, when labor shall be best honored and well rewarded.”
By 1886 Labor Day had become a national event. Nearly 20,000 marched in Manhattan, and another 10,000 in Brooklyn, while 25,000 turned out in Chicago, 15,000 in Boston, 5,000 in Buffalo, and 4,000 in Washington, D.C. The following year five states made Labor Day an official holiday for state employees as hundreds of cities and towns held festivities. Finally, in 1894 – just a dozen years after the first celebration in New York – President Grover Cleveland signed into law a measure establishing Labor Day as a holiday for all federal workers.
Thus, through the efforts of Irishmen named Maguire, McGuire, Blissert, McCabe, and Powderly, an enduring American tradition was born. During the last century the Irish were the stalwarts of the unions with leaders such as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Teddy Gleason, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, George Meany, and Mike Quill. Presently, another Irishman, John Sweeney, heads America’s largest labor union, the AFL-CIO. However, as Irish Americans today increasingly rise in the corporate sector, they are much more likely to be found on the side of management than union. But it is important to keep in mind that the very same issues which compelled workers in 1882 to start the Labor Day holiday persist among wage earners today. ♦
Edward T. O’Donnell is author of the book 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History (Doubleday, 2001).