The Labor Day vacation rolls around just in time for a nice reprieve from the 2 weeks of school and busy schedules. I know that once we were back in the swing of things we were just about to tip the whole play set over.
This weekend I really got to thinking about the Labor Day holiday. What was it all about? How did it start? And why do I always choose to tackle the biggest jobs that in no way resemble relaxation?
In the 1880’s Labor Day was created by the labor movement to honor hard working Americans that made this country great. The U. S. Department of Labor has a great page dedicated to the history of Labor Day along with an interesting story of it parentage.
According to legend, Peter McGuire stood before the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882, to suggest the idea of setting aside one day a year to honor labor. McGuire believed that 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.”
Peter McGuire was a young, though well-respected, union leader. A child of immigrants, he quit school at an early age to go to work. In 1881, he founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, which would become the largest trade union of the time. Later, McGuire would join with his friend, Samuel Gompers, to found the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Through the AFL and the Carpenters, McGuire led the great strikes of 1886 and 1890, which would eventually result in the adoption of the eight-hour workday on the nation’s agenda.
Recently, however, evidence uncovered at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark reveals that another respected union figure of the day, Matthew Maguire, may quite possibly be the man behind the creation of Labor Day.
In the 1870s, Matthew Maguire (later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists- IAM) led several strikes, most of which were intended to force the plight of manufacturing workers and their long hours into the public consciousness. By 1882, Maguire had become the secretary of and a leading figure in the Central Labor Union of New York.
According to the New Jersey Historical Society, after President Cleveland signed into law the creation of a national Labor Day, The Paterson (N.J.) Morning Call published an opinion piece entitled, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due,” which stated that “the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.” This editorial also referred to Maguire as the “Father of the Labor Day holiday.”
So why has Matthew Maguire been overlooked as the “Father of Labor Day”?
According to The First Labor Day Parade, by Ted Watts, Maguire held some political beliefs that were considered fairly radical for the day and also for Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor. Allegedly, Gompers did not want Labor Day to become associated with the sort of “radical” politics of Matthew Maguire, so in a 1897 interview, Gompers’ close friend Peter J. McGuire was assigned the credit for the origination of Labor Day.
Once I had read this article I was even more drawn to the importance of Labor Day and who it honors because it reminded me of my dad. Gene Bechdoldt was never one for doing something half way. He was a hard worker and I will never forget how his rocking chair always smelled of a mixture of dirt and sweat. If you want to know what hard work smells like, that’s it.
My dad was a carpenter and skilled woodworker. He worked long hard hours building every house he ever own as well as building them for other people. And as coincidence would have it, he was also a member of the the International Association of Machinists (IAM) as a lineman for Arkansas Power & Light, back when it was Arkansas Power & Light. We used to joke that he was the Great I AM. In later years he worked hard for the safety of truck drivers as a union steward.
I’d like to think that if he’d been around in the 1880’s he would have been in the fore front of this movement just like the Maguire & McGuire. He always stressed doing the best job you could, never doing anything half way, and never letting anyone say you can’t.