Why do we have Labor Day?

Image: Italy laborers hard at work

Italy laborers hard at work (Cindy Sutherland)

What do you like best about Labor Day? All the “Labor Day” sales, the day off from work, picnics, parades? Today, Labor Day is a day off of work, or time to spend with the family with cookouts or picnics.

Back in 1863 times weren’t as good as they are today from the workers’ perspective. There were immigrant men, women and children who worked in factories for 10 to 12 hours a day, stopping only for a short time to eat. They didn’t miss work for illness or from being tired, because if they did they would be fired and there were thousands of people waiting to take their place.

A man by the name of Peter McGuire was instrumental in making positive changes in the work place. At the age of 11, McGuire sold papers on the streets in New York City, shined shoes, cleaned stores and ran errands. His father enlisted to fight in the Civil War and Peter was left to help support his mother and six sisters and brothers. At 17 he took an apprenticeship in a piano shop. This was a better job than the other jobs he held, he was learning a trade, but the hours were still long and the pay low. At night he went to meetings that focused on social issues of the day. And of course the main issue focused on was bad labor conditions. Everyone was was tired of long hours, uncertain jobs and low pay.

McGuire went around speaking to crowds of workers and unemployed people. He lobbied the city government for jobs and relief money. He became known as a “disturber of the public peace.” He began to travel the east coast to speak to laborers about unionizing since the city government ignored his demands. It was a long hard road for McGuire but his hard work did lead to the organizing of factory workers, dock workers and toolmakers demanding and getting their rights to an eight hour workday, a secure job and a future in their trades.

Peter McGuire on May 12, 1882 stood before New York’s Central Labor Union asking to set aside one day a year to honor the laborer. The first Monday in September was determined to be an official holiday, almost midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

Happy Labor Day!