Labor Day History
Posted by on

The Following column was written by Leo Canty, the Executive Secretary of the AFL-CIO in Connecticut. It appeared in the Manchester (CT) Journal-Enquirer. It is reposted here with his permission.

Labor Spirit
By Leo Canty
Here??s a fun fact for the coming Labor Day weekend: America was started in a union hall.

In 1774 the ancestors of the modern day carpenters union, all of whom belonged to a local Philadelphia guild called the Carpenters?? Company, finished construction of Carpenters Hall. It was a finely crafted and impressive building, constructed by talented and organized skilled trades people who fully understood the value and power of working together to help each other prosper and care for family.

The carpenters guild members toiled as King George and the British profiteers were putting the squeeze on the colonists at the dawn of the American Revolution. Leaders of the colonies needed a meeting to share their discontent and develop a plan to stop the oppression. The call went out for the First Continental Congress; delegates chose Carpenters?? Hall for what would be the historic meeting, where delegates passed a series of resolutions letting the King and Parliament know that could not trample on the rights of colonists and put the eventual revolution in play.

How fitting, then, that the flame that ignited the fire in pursuit of social and economic justice for a nation was lit in a union hall.

A century later, the carpenters and other unions in Philadelphia and other cities were building their own modern-day framework for economic justice and social progress. Part of that framework included a vision to launch a special day of recognition for the toils and achievements of ordinary working people. America had made great strides economically since the revolution and the beginning forces of organized labor sought to ensure that due recognition was given to America??s workers.

Carpenters union leader Peter McGuire from Philadelphia, along with Matthew Maguire (no relation), a machinist who led the New York City Central Labor union, are both credited with launching the concept of a national observance of Labor Day. The official recorded event took place on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, when some 20,000 working people marched to demand an eight-hour workday and other labor law reforms. The idea caught on and marches, celebrations and other observances began to spread to other states as workers fought to win better wages, workplace rights and better working conditions, at a time when there were no laws to support them.

In 1893, as unions began to gain more power and recognition, New York City workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of a national Labor Day drawing a lot of attention to the organized efforts to improve wages and workers rights. A year later, 12,000 federal troops were called into Pullman, Ill., to break up a huge strike against the greedy Pullman railway company. Frustrated, angry workers resisted and the situation got ugly ending up with two workers shot and killed by U.S. deputy marshals. In what most historians call an election year attempt to appease workers after the federal crackdown on the Pullman strike, six days after the strike was broken, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making the first Monday in September Labor Day and a federal holiday. Cleveland lost the election, and many states went ahead and affirmed the holiday in their law books. Connecticut??s law passed in 1889.

History is history and beyond the institution of the Labor Day holiday organized labor has played one of the most significant roles as catalysts for change this nation has ever seen. Major social and economic changes such as ending child labor, pushing for a 40 hour week, weekends and paid holidays, pensions, health care, sick and vacation time, safe workplaces, rights at work are benefits everyone takes for granted and gets to enjoy. None of these benefits were achieved without a fight. Many struggles and sacrifices were made and lives given to provide fair and just rewards in trade for ones work. Today??s unions know just as well as those in place at this country??s beginning that at times it??s just as difficult to hold on to a good standard of living as it is to improve. But that??s never been a reason to stop trying.

The spirit of unity and purpose, and the desire to change things for the better, that suffused Carpenters Hall in 1774 is alive and well in today??s union halls and we all get to feel it at picnics and parades on Monday. Happy Labor Day.