The First Labor Day

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On the morning of the first Labor Day, a century ago, William G. McCabe, who was riding downtown to lead a workmen’s parade through the streets of New York City, found himself in a philosophical frame of mind: he was prepared for the worst kind of failure and convinced that whatever happened could only be for the better. Although McCabe was the grand marshal, the preparations had been made by a committee, and he thought the arrangements were “almost a case of suicide.”

“Nevertheless,” he wrote fifteen years later, “I had determined there would be a parade even thoueh I paraded alone.” McCabe had promised that the parade would begin at ten o’clock sharp, but when he dismounted from his horse at his grand marshal’s headquarters just across the street from City Hall at eight-thirty on the calm, clear Tuesday morning of September 5, 1882, he found nothing ready. I Even his own union, Local No. 6 of the International Typographers, which had promised not only to march but to provide a band as well, had not managed to field a single member. McCabe had to go himself to the union office nearby and persuade twenty-five or thirty printers to turn out. By nine o’clock about thirty or forty men of the Advance Labor Club of Brooklyn had arrived, and McCabe mustered his first division, only eighty strong, in the shade of the post office, at the south end of City Hall Park.

“Hundreds of men who could find no work to do were standing about having great fun at our expense,” he recalled, “and some of the more serious-minded urged me to give the thing up. ” Instead he set some of his rank and file to haranguing the crowd on the sidewalks and eventually managed to coax another ten dozen recruits to fall in. Still there was no band, and McCabe resigned himself to leading “a straggling mob” of no more than two hundred men. Then, just as the hands of the City Hall clock approached the hour of ten, McCabe saw “faithful old Matt Maguire,” the secretary of the organizing committee, come running across the park. Two hundred members of the jewelers union were on their way from Newark, he said; they would arrive any minute.

For McCabe “it was the first gleam of light in what threatened to be an awful day to me.” In a few minutes he heard the sound of Voss’s Military Band of Newark playing “When I First Put This Uniform On,” from Patience , the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. As McCabe recalled, “Never did music sound sweeter to me. ” Soon the jewelers and their band rounded a corner onto Broadway; McCabe deployed his twoman staff and his escort of six mounted policemen. “I gave the order to move, and up Broadway we went.”

McCabe was not the only one who had his doubts about how the day would go. From the outset a number of skeptics within the nascent labor movement had questioned whether workingmen were capable of putting on a successful picnic, let alone a demonstration of several thousand marching men. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later became the American Federation of Labor, was less than a year old but already confirmed in its down-to-earth creed: higher wages and a shorter workday. Its rival, the Order of the Knights of Labor, was still more interested in Utopian visions of social reform. Around New York, members of the thirteen-year-old Knights of Labor refused to identify themselves for fear of losing their jobs. Both the Advance Labor Club and the Newark jewelers union, which marched in McCabe’s vanguard, were pseudonyms for local assemblies of the Knights. Nevertheless, the New York, Brooklyn, and New Jersey Knights wanted to be active leaders of the labor movement, so they formed an umbrella organization for workingmen of the metropolitan area, which they called the New York Central Labor Union.

McCabe, who was the delegate from his printers local, reported that one Sunday afternoon Matthew Maguire, the secretary of the Central Labor Union, suggested that all labor organizations in the vicinity of New York be invited to make “a public show of organized strength.” Indeed, the minutes of the meeting held on Sunday, May 14,1882, at Science Hall, 141 East Eighth Street, record that a plan was presented “by a delegate for holding a monster labor festival in which all workingmen could take part early in September, the proceeds to be devoted to the benefit of all unions taking part.”

The proposal caught on quickly. On May 21 a committee of five was appointed to find a site for a picnic. Two weeks later the committee reported that it had reserved Elm Park, at Ninth Avenue and Ninety-second Street, for September 5. The biggest beer garden in the city, Elm Park was owned by Louis Wendel, a rising saloonkeeper and politician, who put up a sum of money to pay for printing fifty thousand 25-cent picnic tickets. These were distributed to the constituent unions on the understanding that they would keep the money from the tickets they sold, but that proceeds from sales at the gate would go to the Central Labor Union.

The parade preparations did not go so smoothly. McCabe complained that although “the dauntless Maguire” chose the route and specified where each organization was to assemble, nine-tenths of the units named in the order of march had never declared whether they would in fact appear. “The whole thing certainly looked dubious,” he wrote, “but I filled the reporters full of information, incubated in the recesses of my imagination, which they printed, giving out the impression that our parade was going to be a stupendous affair.”