The First Labor Day

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The remainder of the march, across Seventeenth Street and up Fifth Avenue, symbolized the economic antipodes of the times. Hundreds of men who labored ten to twelve hours, six days a week, for the standard daily wage of two dollars, tramped through the most ostentatious corridor of wealth and power in America. They passed August Belmont’s house; they trudged on past the tonish Brunswick Hotel; past the uptown Delmonico restaurant; past the elegant new Union League Club; past the mansion of Vincent Astor. Mrs. Astor—along with many of her millionaire neighbors—was in Newport for the season. Nevertheless, if the consciousness of capitalism was not penetrated, its precinct was, by a procession that included a large delegation of the Progressive Cigarmakers Union, wearing red ribbons, bearing red banners, led by a red-sashed official, and accompanied by the Socialist Singing Society under a red flag.

The parade ended at Forty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, a little more than three miles from McCabe’s starting point at City Hall and just a step away from the nearby station of the Metropolitan Elevated Railway, which would carry the celebrants to the picnic grounds.

At Elm Park, women and children were admitted free. McCabe arrived shortly after one o’clock with his family, confident that there would “be no chance for the rowdies who sometimes disturb picnic parties to make any headway here, for, besides the engagement of ten policemen, there will be 400 policemen of our own people ready to assemble at any point at a given signal.”

Each union chose a picnic area and draped its banners and placards from the branches. Flagpoles of the park flew American, Irish, French, and German flags—but not the British Union Jack. There was a large pavilion with a band playing waltzes and polkas, two choral groups, a pianist, and a music-hall performer. “Swings, electric machines, singing, dancing, impromptu band concerts and many other attractions were in full blast,” wrote one observer, “while an expert drove a thriving trade cutting profiles out of black paper.” According to McCabe, twenty-five hundred people were in the park by two o’clock, twenty-five thousand by seven. “Our parade had awakened the city,” he wrote triumphantly. “What a brotherhood was formed that day! The young people danced and sang, the old people smilingly looked on, and augured on the grand future of labor as the outcome of the day’s good work.”

The picnic made a profit of $230 for the Central Labor Union, including the sum of $4.70 that was recovered from an unidentified member of the organizing committee, after an audit of the accounts at a delegates’ meeting the following Sunday. While that matter was settled peaceably, the meeting almost turned into a donnybrook when one of the printers demanded to know why the Central Labor Journal had been printed in a nonunion shop. Words like scab and lie were flung back and forth. Two delegates clinched, then were pulled apart. “There was great confusion for the next five minutes,” the Sun reported, “until McCabe, who was presiding, took the gavel and pounded loudly.”

But in spite of the bickering, the festival of labor was obviously a success, so much so that two years later, George K. Lloyd, then secretary of the Central Labor Union, offered a successful resolution: “Resolved that the Central Labor Union does herewith declare and will observe the first Monday in September of each year as Labor Day.”

In 1887 the New York State Legislature was still considering a bill to make Labor Day an official holiday when Massachusetts acted, the first state to do so. Twenty-five states were observing Labor Day on one date or another by 1893. The next year, President Cleveland signed an Act of Congress making the day a national holiday. He gave the pen to Rep. Amos J. Cummings of New York, who was the sponsor in the House; Cummings sent it to Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. The Knights of Labor had long since gone into decline, and Gompers, not Powderly, was labor’s leading statesman.

When Cleveland flourished his pen, the dauntless Matthew Maguire was living in Paterson, New Jersey, where he had become a union organizer and the Socialist Labor party’s candidate for Vice President of the United States. His hometown paper, The Morning Call , loyally protested in an editorial that the pen should have gone to Maguire—he was, after all “the father of the Labor Day holiday.”