THE major proponent of Labor Day, 103 years old this year, was Peter J. McGuire, whose name is not a household word, even in the homes of historians. McGuire grew up in the East in the period after the Civil War. The son of Irish immigrants, he was forced to go to work at the age of 11. By his own admission, he held almost every kind of a job during these formative years -- except a sword swallower. ``And sometimes I was so hungry, a sword -- with mustard, of course -- would have tasted fine.''
McGuire finally found his niche as a carpenter and became the leading force behind the trade's unionization. It was a modest beginning on Aug. 8, 1881, when 36 delegates representing carpenters in 11 states came together to form the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. But with McGuire as the principal administrator, the UBC grew from a few members to 70,000 strong in 1900.
At the time of the union's formation, McGuire had some definite ideas about the strategy of the carpenters union. First and foremost, he believed that the eight-hour day was critical to the success of the UBC. Over a period of several years, the objective was pursued, culminating in a major -- and successful -- strike in 1890, thereby assuring the union one of the leading roles among skilled crafts at the time.
Second, McGuire felt that the cause of unionism could be advanced by setting up a holiday for all American laborers, most likely in the long stretch from July 4 to Thanksgiving. The day would not only provide a period of leisure for the worker, but also permit unions to add to their numbers and image through parades and similar demonstrations. McGuire's idea was supported by the UBC, which was successful in organizing the first Labor Day in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882. Not surprisingly, edit orial reaction was somewhat less than favorable:
``A large force of the working men of this city and neighborhood,'' read one publication, ``indulged in a parade and picnic yesterday, apparently for the purpose of enjoying a holiday, and at the same time making an exhibition of numerical strength. In the latter respect it was not so imposing a display as was anticipated. Ten thousand men marched through the streets with bands of music, having the recreations of a beer-garden in prospect.''
Labor Day spread to other cities and states in the years after 1882. By 1893 the holiday was observed on the first Monday in September by 20 states. In 1894 Congress approved a national Labor Day. The holiday was observed by more states in the next few years, but McGuire found himself in the midst of an internal struggle that would promote his historical obscurity.
McGuire championed a loose federation of unions within the UBC, whereas others campaigned for a more highly centralized structure. The latter prevailed by 1901, ousting McGuire on what was generally believed to be trumped-up charges of embezzling union funds.
McGuire soon faded from the scene -- leaving future workers without the founder to rally the troops on the first Monday in September.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.