Who Is the Father of Labor Day?

Labor Day, Father of Labor Day

Yesterday, as I was working on one of my featured posts, I looked into the history of Labor Day. What I found was interesting. And the most compelling part of my research concerns who founded the holiday.

How Was Labor Day Established As a National Holiday in the U.S.?

The Labor Day was created by the labor movement as a way to celebrate the social and economic achievements of American workers. The Central Labor Union was the real impetus in creating Labor Day. It urged similar unions across the country to join in the recognition of a “workingman’s holiday.”

The major push for the holiday came in 1885 and 1886, as the result of state ordinances. New York was the first state to create a Labor Day Bill, but Oregon became the first state to make their like bill a law, on February 21, 1887. New York would make their bill a law during that same year and it would be joined by Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.

The first ever Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City (So, September 5, 2016 is the 134th anniversary!) The Central Labor Union set up a demonstration and a picnic on that day. The union would celebrate its own Labor Day a year later, in 1883. Afterward, the first Monday in September was selected for Labor Day in 1884.

Congress finally made Labor Day an official national holiday on June 28, 1894. By then, 31 states had already recognized Labor Day. President Grover Cleveland signed the congressional Labor Day bill into law (“History”).

So now, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Now, Who Founded the Holiday?

Basically, there is no clear consensus on who founded the holiday. Two men, Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire, have been said to have founding Labor Day.

Now, McGuire was largely credited in many circles. He is cited by most sources, including the AFL-CIO, as the “father of Labor Day.” (He was also credited with creating May Day, which is the international celebration of May Day.)

McGuire was said to stand before the New York Central Labor Union on May 12, 1882. That day, he supposed proposed setting aside a day to honor workers. A Labor Day should be “be celebrated by a street parade which would publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” The day would honor those workers “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”

Also, McGuire said that he in fact founded the holiday in an 1897 interview. However, there may be a compelling case for either Maguire.

Who Was Peter McGuire?

Peter McGuire was born in New York City in 1852 to an Irish Catholic family (“Peter J. McGuire”). He was the child of immigrants (“The Real”). McGuire entered the workforce at age 11, dropping out of school to do so. At the time, his father went off to fight in the Union Army.

McGuire got involved with unions at a young age. He attended free night classes at Cooper Union. There, he met and befriended Samuel Gompers. As a 15-year-old apprentice to a piano maker, McGuire got involved with the International Workingmen’s Association.

In May 1874, McGuire helped to form the Social Democratic Party. Until 1879, he organized chapters in New England, the West, the Southwest, and the Midwest. During that time, he relocated to St. Louis, MO (in 1877), which he would help to convince the Missouri Legislature to support the first Bureaus of Labor Statistics in the nation.

McGuire founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) in 1881. He was named as the general secretary of the UBC a year later, after relocating the union to New York City (“Peter J. McGuire”). The UBC would become the largest union at the time.

McGuire co-founded what would become the American Federation of Labor (AFL) with his friend Samuel Gompers. McQuire led the great strikes of 1886 and 1890; those efforts ultimately led to the adoption of the 8-hour work week (“The Real”).

And Who Was Matthew Maguire?

The New Jersey Historical Society uncovered evidence that pointed to Matthew Maguire as being the real “Father of the Labor Day holiday.”

Maguire was a machinist who was also involved in workers’ rights. In the 1870’s he also pushed for a shorter workday.

He later served as the secretary of Local 344 of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union in Paterson, N.J. He was said to propose the holiday in 1882 when he was the secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

It appears that Maguire was the organizer of the September 5, 1882 parade in New York City. He sent out the invitations and he and his wife rode in the first carriage at the head of the parade, according to his grandson Matthew Feeny.

The Paterson, N.J. Morning Call credited Matthew Maguire as founding Labor Day in an opinion piece entitled, “Honor to Whom Honor is Due.” It was noted the President Grover Cleveland gave the pen that he signed the Labor Day bill with to Samuel Gompers. However, the opinion 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.”

There were other sources who pointed to Maguire as being the real “Father of Labor Day.” William S. Walsh made a note about Maguire in Curiosities of Popular Customs (1898). B.E. and E.B. Stevenson wrote about the “History of Labor Day” in their 1912 book, Days and Deeds.

From the 1898 book:

In 1882 Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in that city [New York], with the approval of the Union, corresponded with the various Labor organizations in the State with a view to setting aside one day in the year as their own holiday…Maguire was made chairman of the committee to arrange for the first labor day celebration in that year.

From the 1912 book:

To Matthew Maguire, Secretary of the Central Labor Council of New York City belongs the credit for first actually putting the idea into execution.

Why isn’t Matthew Maguire thus recognized? According to Ted Watts, the author of The First Labor Day Parade, Maguire held political views that were considered too radical, with respect to the mainstream movement of American Labor (“Matthew McQuire”).

What Do You Think?

Do you believe Peter McGuire was the creator of Labor Day? Or was Matthew Maguire the true founder?

Works Cited

“History of Labor Day.” The United States Department of Labor. Web. Retrieved 4 Sep 2016. <https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history>.

“Matthew Maguire, Father of Labor Day?http://www.jerseyhistory.org/matthew_maguire.html

“Peter J. McGuire (1852-1906).” AFL-CIO. Web. Retrieved 5 Sep 2016. <http://www.aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Key-People-in-Labor-History/Peter-J.-McGuire-1852-1906>.

“The Real Maguire  Who Actually Invented Labor Day?” The United States Department of Labor. Web. Retrieved 4 Sep 2016. <https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history-maguire>.


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