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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Sep 1, 2018

This week at In The Past Lane, the history podcast, I take a deep dive into the origins of Labor Day.  It's a holiday that most Americans these days take for granted. But it was born out of the crisis of the Gilded Age, that tumultuous last third of the 19th century that saw both the US economy boom as never before and social upheaval take place on an unprecedented level. 

This unique holiday was first celebrated on September 5, 1882. On that day  thousands of workers in New York City risked getting fired for taking an unauthorized day off to participate in festivities honoring honest toil and the rights of labor. 

This first commemoration of Labor Day testified to labor’s rising power and unity in the Gilded Age as well as its sense that both were necessary to withstand the growing power of business and industry.

The Labor Day holiday originated with the Central Labor Union (CLU), a local labor federation – essentially a union of unions - formed in NYC in January 1882 to promote the interests of workers.  The CLU immediately became a formidable force in New York, staging protest rallies, lobbying state legislators, and organizing strikes and boycotts.  By August 1882 membership in the organization boomed to fifty-six unions representing 80,000 workers. 

But CLU activists wanted to do more than simply increase membership and win strikes. They wanted to build worker solidarity in the face of jarring changes being wrought by the industrial revolution in the Gilded Age – the period in American history covering roughly the last 3rd of the 19th century. During this period the United States was transformed from what today we’d call a “developing nation” in 1865 to the world’s leading economic power by 1900. The favorite word of politicians and business leaders in this era was “progress.” But along with this tremendous increase in national wealth came a problem: widespread poverty.

Evidence of this troubling duality could be found everywhere, but especially in New York City where mansions of big business tycoons like Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie arose along Fifth Avenue, while in the rest of the city two-thirds of the population lived in cramped and squalid tenements.  In short, the establishment of Labor Day signaled that Gilded Age America faced a crisis over growing inequality.

The motivation to establish Labor Day also came from a growing sense of alarm among American workers over the growing power of employers over their employees and frustration over the unwillingness of political leaders to do anything about it.  Employers were free to increase hours, slash wages, and fire workers at will – practices that rendered workers powerless and pushed more and more of them into poverty.  

These developments, noted labor leaders, called into question the future of the American republic.  As the CLU put it in its constitution: “Economical servitude degrades political liberties to a farce. Men who are bound to follow the dictates of factory lords, that they may earn a livelihood, are not free.  … [A]s the power of combined and centralized capital increases, the political liberties of the toiling masses become more and more illusory.”

In other words, workers in the Gilded Age began to argue that in this new world of industry – one that was so very different from the agrarian world of the Founders - mere political equality (one man, one vote) was no longer adequate to maintain a healthy republican society. Modern industrial life, with huge corporations, global markets, and increasing numbers of people working for wages, required a recognition that republican citizenship included an economic dimension – not just a political one.

As the reformer and labor activist Henry George wrote in 1879, “In our time…creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy Liberty.”  The fact that all male citizens possessed the vote and equality before the law, George continued, no longer guaranteed them the blessings of republican citizenship. If one was forced to work 60 or 80 hours a weeks and yet did not earn a living wage, his right to vote was meaningless. He had sunken into what workers in that er called, “industrial slavery.”  Extreme inequality, in other words, would destroy American democracy.

So these were the concerns that in 1882 prompted labor activists affiliated with New York’s CLU to establish Labor Day as a day that would celebrate workers and inspire them to reclaim their dissipating rights.  As John Swinton, editor of the city’s only labor paper wrote, “Whatever enlarges labor’s sense of its power hastens the day of its emancipation.”

Now, we should pause here to note that the precise identity of the CLU leader who in May 1882 first proposed the idea of establishing Labor Day remains a mystery.  Some accounts say it was Peter “P. J.” McGuire, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners (and future co-founder of the AFL), who proposed the idea.  Others argue that it was another man with a similar last name, machinist Matthew Maguire.  Well, we’ll probably never know the answer to which Maguire deserves the title of the “Father of Labor Day,” but it is clear that both men played key roles in promoting and organizing the original holiday.

And so it was that after months of preparation the chosen day – Tuesday September 5, 1882 – finally arrived.   Optimism among the organizers ran high, but no one knew how many workers would turn out.  Few could expect their employers to grant them a day off and many feared getting fired and blacklisted for labor union activity. 

When William G. McCabe, the parade’s first Grand Marshall and popular member of the International Typographers Union, arrived an hour before the parade’s start, the situation looked grim.  Only a few dozen workers stood milling about City Hall Park in lower Manhattan.

But to the relief of McCabe and other organizers, by the time the parade touched off at 10:00 a.m., about 400 men and a brass band had assembled. In the early going, the small group of marchers faced ridicule from bystanders and interruptions in the line of march because policemen refused to stop traffic at intersections.  But as the parade continued north up Broadway, it swelled in size as union after union fell into line from side streets.  Soon the jeers turned into cheers as the spectacle of labor solidarity grew more impressive.

Marchers held aloft signs that spoke both to their pride as workers and the fear that they were losing political power and economic standing in the republic:

To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth

Labor Built this Republic. Labor Shall Rule It

Less Work and More Pay

Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work

 All Men Are Created Equal

 Many workers wore their traditional work uniforms and aprons and walked behind wagons displaying their handiwork.  Others dressed in their holiday best for the occasion.

Midway through the parade, the throng of workers – now numbering 5,000 -- 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.

It then continued up Fifth Avenue, past the opulent mansions of the new super rich of the era – the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Goulds and so on, before ending at 42nd Street and Sixth Ave.  From there participants headed to a large park on Manhattan’s Upper west Side for a massive picnic.  By late afternoon some 25,000 workers and their families jammed the park to participate in the festivities which consisted of live music, stirring speeches on workers’ rights, and consumption of copious amounts of food and beer. 

Thrilled with the success of this first effort, CLU leaders staged a second Labor Day the following year in 1883 and the event drew an even larger number of participants.  The next year, in 1884, the CLU officially designated the first Monday in September as the annual Labor Day, calling upon workers to, “Leave your benches, leave your shops, join in the parade and attend the picnic.  A day spent with us is not lost.”  Upwards of 20,000 marched that year, including a contingent of African American workers (the first women marchers appeared in 1885).

With such an impressive start, the tradition of an annual Labor Day holiday quickly gained popularity across the country.  By 1886 Labor Day had become a national event.  Some 20,000 workers 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.   Politicians took notice and in 1887 five states, including New York, passed laws making Labor Day a state holiday.  Seven years later – 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.

Labor Day caught on so quickly among Gilded Age workers because unlike the traditional forms of labor activism like  striking and picketing, or civic holidays commemorating victories in war,

Labor Day drew together workers for the purposes of celebration. As P. J. McGuire later wrote of the parade, “No festival of martial glory of 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.”

In the twentieth century, Labor Day parades grew into massive spectacles of pride and power. These annual events reflected the growing power and influence of organized labor in American society. The labor movement and social reformers pushed for policies aimed at limiting the power of big corporations and the wealthy, while protecting and enhancing the opportunity for the average citizen to live a decent life. These policies included the 8-hour day, increased workplace safety, collective bargaining rights, expanded public education, unemployment insurance, and Social Security.  Their success reflected a growing acceptance of the idea that for republican citizenship to be real, it had to include a baseline of material wellbeing.  By the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined “Freedom from Want” as one of the nation’s essential Four Freedoms. “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” he said. “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Roosevelt’s New Deal and subsequent moments of reform like President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” boosted the wellbeing of the average American.  So, too, did the influence of a strong labor movement. Labor’s power was on full display on Labor Day in 1961 when 200,000 workers processed up Fifth Avenue behind Grand Marshall Mayor Robert Wagner, passing on the reviewing stand dignitaries that included Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob K. Javitts, and former President Harry S. Truman.

The result of reforms and strong unions was the steady decline of extreme wealth inequality. Whereas in 1890 the top 1 percent of Americans owned 51 percent of all wealth, by 1979 the 1 percent owned 20.5% of all wealth.

But since 1980 the trend has shifted dramatically back toward increased wealth and income inequality. This trend has many sources, including deindustrialization, cuts to social programs, and the deregulation of Wall Street.  But a key one has been the decline of the power of organized labor.  In 1955 union membership reached its historic highpoint with 39% of the American workforce belonging to a union. Today, union membership hovers around 10 percent.

And wealth inequality?  In 1979, as we just noted, the share of wealth possessed by the 1 percent had fallen to about 21%. Today, it’s closing in on 40% -- and rising. This trend explains why so many Americans have taken to calling this era, the Second Gilded Age.

So this weekend, as millions celebrate Labor Day by not laboring, Americans would do well to reflect on the core claims of the early labor movement that invented Labor Day: Gilded Age workers and those who followed them argued that the nation’s democratic values and republican institutions were threatened by economic policies that left a small number of people extremely wealthy and powerful, while the great majority of citizens struggled to obtain or hold onto a piece of the American Dream. Today, this concern animates calls for a $15 minimum wage, single payer health care, tougher regulations on corporations, banks, and Wall Street, and greater investment in infrastructure and public education.

So, Labor Day should remind us that while, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, all are created equal, they also grow up to live in a society shaped by policies and laws that determine whether opportunities for success are focused on the great majority of citizens, or merely on the 1 percent.

Happy Labor Day, people.  

Recommended reading

Edward T. O’Donnell, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (Columbia Univ. Press, 2015)

Jonathan Grossman, “Who Is the Father of Labor Day?,” Labor History, 14, no. 4, (1973)

Michael Kazin and Steven J. Ross, “America’s Labor Day: The Dilemma of a Workers’ Celebration,” Journal of American History (Mar 1992)

P.J. McGuire, "Labor Day — Its Birth and Significance", The Union Agent [Kentucky], vol. 3, no. 9 (Sept. 1898).

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Episodes 052, 053, 054 – a three-part series on the Gilded Age


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Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

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Blue Dot Sessions, “Sage the Hunter,” (Free Music Archive)

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The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

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