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Labor History Articles

First Labor Day Parade

Webtrax Admin

An account of the labor parade in New York City (and the secret reason why it was held) which became the first Labor Day Parade.

[Ted Watts is the author of The First Labor Day Parade, a fascinating little booklet which describes the very first Labor Day Parade as the various contingents came past the reviewing stand. The booklet is available from the Illinois Labor History Society ($5.00).]

The first parade was not held on a Monday, but on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City. The parade was repeated annually without interruption, but not always on a Monday, until several states and then the Congress in 1894, settled on the first Monday in September.

Those first parades were really protest rallies for the adoption of the 8-hour day, rather than the, often tame civic events they have involved into. Participants had to give up a day's pay in order to march. The New York City Central Labor Union (CLU) even levied a fine on non-participants!

In 1882, the New York City CLU was a lodge of the still-secret Knights of Labor, with a progressive tailor, Robert Blissert at its head. His right-hand man and Secretary of the CLU was Mathew Maguire, a machinist. The parade was timed to coincide with a national Kinghts of Labor conference being held in New York. This accounts for the presence of almost the entire K of L leadership on the reviewing stand. But their affiliation with labor was masked for the reporters who covered the parade. Grand Master Workman Terrence Powderley, for example, was introduced as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which he, in fact, was.

The parade Call and all invitations were sent out over the signature of Mathew Maguire. During the post-parade picnic at Wendel's Elm Park, P.J. McGuire of the Carpenters, was one of many speakers; but he does not figure during the planning for the parade.

By the 1890's, when the Knights of Labor had all but disappeared, and Samuel Gompers' American Federation of Labor was the dominant labor organization, the folklore about the origins of labor's holiday began.

Robert Blisset was no longer a labor activist. He had become a custom tailor with his own shop in Manhattan. Mathew Maguire had moved to New Jersey, where he became very active in the Socialist Labor Party. P.J. McGuire became a member of the AFL Carpenters' hierarchy.

Gompers simply re-wrote history to conform to the spirit of his new American Federation of Labor by crediting P.J. McGuire with the Labor Day Parade idea. Because the AFL was very non-political, the fact that Mathew Maguire had the effrontery to run as the Vice Presidential candidate on the National Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1896 erased his chances of recognition as the father of Labor Day. Blissert was conveniently out of the Labor Movement.

All of this, and more, can be found in greater fun and detail within my little book, The First Labor Day Parade.

Ted Watts,
Silver Spring, MD.