Labor Day USA   Leave a comment

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I missed the chance to write about Labor Day on Monday (it’s always on the first Monday in September). This was partly because I was too busy putting together resources on the Civil War anniversaries which happened during the school holidays here in Hungary, most notably, of course, that of the Battle of Gettysburg.

However, I have just started planning two courses on History and ‘Civilisation’ , one for primary pupils and one for secondary students, so I was pleased to find a child’s story connecting Labor Day to the Civil War. Apparently, the origins of the Day go back before the development of the Labor Movement in the USA to an eleven-year-old boy selling newspapers in New York City. The son of an Irish immigrant who had just enlisted to fight in the Civil War, Peter McGuire had to help his mother with six brothers and sisters. At that time, children like Peter worked in factories, cloth and steel mills, coalmines and in construction. The conditions were often appalling, and the hours long, as many as fourteen per day, seven days a week. There were few breaks, and no vacations or benefits. There was no concept of workers’ rights, and factory owners could hire and fire, and treat workers as they wished. Immigrant workers were especially vulnerable. They were effectively white wage slaves.

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 - February 18, ...

Peter J. McGuire (July 6, 1852 – February 18, 1906) was an American labor leader of the nineteenth century, the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and one of the leading figures in the first three decades of the American Federation of Labor. He is credited with first proposing the idea of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Peter was seventeen, he began an apprenticeship in a piano shop. This was better than his previous factory jobs, because he was learning a trade, but he still had to work long hours with low pay. At night he went to meetings and classes in economics. One of the main social issues of the day was that of labor conditions. Workers had become tired not just of the low pay and long hours, but also the unsafe and insecure nature of their working environments. They therefore began to organise themselves into unions to improve these conditions. In the spring of 1872, Peter McGuire went on strike with a hundred thousand other workers, marching through the streets to demand a decrease in the working day.

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New Y...

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882 (Lithographie) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He spent the next year speaking to crowds of workers, including those unemployed, and lobbied the city  government for jobs and relief money. He was labelled a ‘disturber of the public peace’, developing a reputation as a troublemaker, unable to find a job in his trade. So he began to travel up and down the East Coast speaking to laborers about joining the union.

United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners o...

United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1881 he moved to St Louis, Missouri, and began to organise carpenters there. They held a convention at which a national union of carpenters was founded. He became General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. After that, the idea of trades unions spread throughout the US. Factory workers, dockworkers and toolmakers all began to demand an eight-hour working day and a secure trade. Peter McGuire and other labor leaders decided to plan a public holiday for workers, both as a tribute to their contribution to the nation, and as a way of bringing more public awareness to their struggles. They chose the first Monday in September, half way between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. On September 5th, 1882, the first Labor Day parade was held in New York City and in 1894 Congress voted the first Monday in September as a national holiday. Although some cities still host parades, rallies and community picnics (including Irish Stew with homemade bread and apple pie!), most Americans treat it as an end-of-summer long weekend, a chance for one last family beach party before the new school year begins on the Tuesday following.

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Glossary:

immigrant

condition(s)

appalling

hire and fire

concept

vulnerable

apprenticeship

trade(s) union

to go on strike

to lobby for

reputation

convention

joiner

to host

rallies

parades

Source:

Brenner, Ford and Sullivan (eds.) (2007), Celebrate! Holidays in the USA. Washington: Office of English Language Programs, US Department of State.

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