Walkabout: How Workers and the Labor Movement Gave Us Labor Day


    New York City was home to the first Labor Day parade and rally. The year was 1882 and the place was Union Square, at that time the heart of Manhattan. We’ve been celebrating the American worker with a special day for 133 years.

    In ways great and small, the 1880s through the turn of the 20th century were a great deal like today.

    Technology was advancing in great leaps — visionaries and clever inventors were coming up with new products, while others were taking those products and improving on them even more.

    The Victorians saw consumer goods rolling out of factories, everything from furniture to clothing to clocks. No longer made by artisans, factory-made goods were plentiful and everywhere at any price point. The highest echelon of capitalists and big business concerns saw profits that were unimaginable before. A large middle class emerged, able to buy big and spend more money than ever.

    Life as a 19th-Century Worker

    An even larger working class made everything, in factories big and small. They performed manual labor and worked in the lowest-paying service jobs. They worked as skilled and unskilled labor and they worked really hard.

    Most workers of the time worked six days a week, 10 or 12 hours a day, 52 weeks a year. Sunday was the only recognized day off.

    There were no paid vacations, no sick days, very few breaks during a day, no such thing as a weekend, and they worked most holidays, taking off only Christmas and perhaps Thanksgiving and one other holiday, if they had a munificent boss.

    The pay was low — barely a living wage — and conditions in most factories and workplaces were horrible. Children who worked in the factories were even worse off than the adults.

    These conditions were not unique or new to the 1880s, and neither was a nascent labor movement.

    Labor Day history NYC

    Child labor in textile mill, late 19th century. Library of Congress

    Striking for Better Working Conditions

    Labor movements had been a part of American life since the American Revolution. Workers had long tried to organize or strike for better wages and working conditions, but these movements were isolated and confined to whatever skill or industry that spawned them. There was no national labor movement until after the Civil War.

    The first national labor federation in the United States was the the National Labor Union, or the NLU. It was founded in 1866 but dissolved in 1882.

    By the 1880s, many different unions had been organized for many different trades and industries. Most of them had similar goals — fair wages, an eight-hour workday and an end to child labor.

    Labor Day history NYC

    Labor Day Parade in Indiana, 1914. Photo via the Athenaeum

    The first Labor Day Parade

    Two different men with similar names are credited for the first Labor Day parade. Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed a holiday and parade in 1882. He was the secretary of the Central Labor Union, or the CLU.

    That same year, Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, also proposed a parade. He was a carpenter and the secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters. Most people, however, give Matthew Maguire the credit.

    The first rally and parade was held in Union Square on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. It was organized by the CLU and touted as a place to show the “strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

    There were speeches and rallies, a parade, and fun and festivities for the whole family. It was so important to the union and worker’s movement that men gave up a day’s pay to partake in the festivities.

    The holiday proved to be a great success, with labor unions in other cities and towns wanting to have their own the next year. It was called “the workingman’s holiday.”

    Labor Day history NYC

    Labor Day Parade Float in New York City, early 20th century. Photo via New York Department of Labor

    Making Labor Day Official

    In 1883, the CLU sponsored the second Labor Day parade, this time on a Monday. By 1886, several cities had an annual Labor Day parade and celebration, and legislation was in the works to make the day a state holiday.

    New York State was among the first to write such legislation. By 1894, 23 states made Labor Day a state holiday. Congress passed a bill that year pronouncing the first Monday in September as Labor Day, now a national holiday.

    For many years afterward, Labor Day truly celebrated the union worker. Parades in cities large and small had union members marching or riding on floats. Banners and speeches celebrated the unions and their memberships.

    Union members were both men and women and pride in that membership was strong.

    Labor Day history NYC

    1930s Labor Day stamp via christinerod.tumblr.com

    The Meaning of Labor Day: Then and Now

    Over the years, through hard-won strikes, some of which ended in death for strikers, workers had won the right to an eight-hour day, collective bargaining, health insurance, retirement funds and better wages.

    They were able to end the practice of child labor in America’s factories and mills.

    Unions were very powerful — this power lasted through two world wars and on into the last decades of the 20th century.

    But by then, a large number of employees in the American workforce were no longer union workers. They had been replaced by non-union white-collar workers, high-tech workers and all manner of executives and non-union staff.

    Labor Day became less and less about the American Labor movement and more about a day off with pay. Labor Day now means the unofficial end of summer, even though the season technically has another three weeks.

    Labor Day sales, a last weekend at the beach or second home, a day off to do whatever, or nothing, before the start of the fall season — that’s the new meaning of Labor Day.

    For schoolchildren, Labor Day marks the beginning of the school year. School often starts the next day, or sometime that week. For sports fans, major-league football starts, and for high schools and colleges across the country, it’s only a matter of weeks before they also take to the field.

    It’s the last day to wear white and seersucker, according to the half-forgotten “rules” of summer dress.

    Labor Day means a new season for television, which used to be a big deal but isn’t anymore. Here in the city, it’s the kickoff to the fall season for symphonies, opera companies and theaters.

    Labor Day means a new crop of open houses, and the ring of circular saws and the pop of nail guns. Fall means renovations go into full swing to beat the coming of winter.

    Of course, here in Brooklyn, Labor Day is the day of the West Indian Day Parade down Eastern Parkway. This grand spectacle of costumes, music and food has been a Brooklyn tradition since 1969.

    It is the culmination of a year of planning and costume making, marking the end of a week of Caribbean-themed celebrations and events. It’s one of Brooklyn’s largest and most famous events, celebrating the many Caribbean nations represented in Brooklyn, and their music, food and culture.

    Fall is coming and Labor Day is now its herald.

    So let’s toast the brave and often desperate people who founded unions, and risked life and limb to negotiate for the right to work, not slave. We owe them a great deal, and we are a better country for them. Happy Labor Day, America.

    Top photograph via Wikipedia

    Labor Day history NYC

    West Indian Day Parade, 2014. Photo via Brooklyn Street Beat

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