The First Labor Day


With equal audacity the Central Labor Committee issued a last-minute proclamation, declaring the next day a holiday in the name of fifty-six member organizations representing almost one hundred thousand men. The program for the day was published in an eightpage newspaper called The Central Labor Journal . McCabe forecast a turnout of twenty thousand marchers and trumpeted a final call to arms: “We are entering a contest to recover the rights of the workingmen and secure henceforth to the producer the fruits of his industry. Our demonstration tomorrow is the review before the battle. … The greater it is the more thoroughly will the enemy be disheartened and the easier will our victory come. Let no man shirk, let none desert, let everyone be where his presence will contribute to the common purpose.”

It was sheer bravado. The plan was to form in three divisions, with the head of the parade more than a mile away from its tail. But when McCabe ordered the first division to march up Broadway, he still had not heard whether there was anybody to march in the second, which was supposed to join him at Fourth Street with organizations from the West Side, or in the third, which was to join at Waverly Place with East Side organizations. He could count on only his little vanguard of about four hundred men, and Voss’s thirty-five-piece band.

“What a march that was!” McCabe later said. “I think the driver of every vehicle that could possibly do so crossed our line.… Several times I protested to the officer in charge of the police squad, but he and his men seemed to regard the affair as a circus, and would or could do nothing …”

But it was not the obstructive teamsters or “the blue-coated humorists” who most bothered McCabe: “It was the heartless guying and insults of the working people on the sidewalks and the men and women workers in the windows of the factories along Broadway that cut me. The people whom the Central Labor Union wished to lift up; these factory workers with long hours or small wages; these men who were on the sidewalks looking at our parade because they had no work at any wages—their taunts and jibes and insults were unbearable.”

Then, after a mile of this, something happened. Four hundred members of the bricklayers union swung into the parade from a side street, and at their head marched a special squad of forty, dressed in white bricklayers’ aprons, who formed a protective screen around the head and flanks of the column. According to one account, each man carried a chunk of brick in his pocket. At this point, McCabe reported, Roundsman Gannon, the commander of the police escort, “became proportionately more respectful. ”

From then on, it seemed that every side street was filled with workingmen in rank and file, with bands and floats, waiting to join the parade.

While McCabe was marching up toward Union Square, the Sixth National Assembly of the Knights of Labor was meeting there, and Terence Powderly himself, the most distinguished labor leader in the country, stood ready to review the parade along with most of the 76 delegates who represented the union’s 42,517 members.

At eleven o’clock Grand Marshal McCabe came into view “on a fine horse,” saluted the assembled dignitaries, and then joined them on the stand to review his troops. “Nearly all were well clothed,” The New York Times reported, “and some wore attire of fashionable cut. The great majority smoked cigars …”

The decorative masons turned out in yellow aprons; the journeymen horseshoers wore “gold-fringed silk aprons of various colors, in which red horseshoes were woven”; most of the longshoremen were in checkered jumpers; and the German framemakers union arrived with “a number of tremendously tall fellows with clay pipes clenched in their teeth and beaver hats on their heads, huge axes on their shoulders and thick leather aprons over their thighs.” One spectator wrote that “the whole thing gave a faint suggestion of the gathering of guilds in past centuries.”

The bricklayers marched behind wagons bearing arches of brick, the pianomakers had a wagon with a piano, “upon which a pianomaker enthusiastically played,” and the framers brought a wagon with a desk and other furniture. At last there were enough bands to provoke the Herald into grumbling that if the working men could afford them all “just for a day’s fun they should reflect whether, after all, they are as badly off as they imagine. ”

It took about forty-five minutes for the parade to pass the reviewing stand. The Sun estimated the number of marchers at 12,500 men; the World , at 14,000; the Irish World , at between 15,000 and 20,000. McCabe put it at “nearly 4,000 men,” a body more likely to be able to pass in review in forty-five minutes.

None of the contemporary accounts used the expression Labor Day , nor did the Central Labor Union’s handbill, which described it as a “Demonstration of Labor, Mammoth Festival, Parade and Pic-Nic.” Powderly said he first heard the expression on the reviewing stand: “During the time that the various organizations were passing the Grand Stand at Union Square, Robert Price, of Lonaconing, Md., turned to the General Worthy Foreman of the Knights of Labor, Richard Griffiths, and said, ‘This is Labor Day in earnest, Uncle Dick.’ Whether that was the first time the term had been used is not known, but the event was afterwards referred to as the Labor Day parade. ”