In September of 1882, an estimated 10,000 workers gathered in New York City to march in a parade, watch fireworks, dance, drink and eat in what is recognized as the first celebration of Labor Day.
While the holiday is still enjoyed as a respite from work, recognition of organized labor’s role in establishing it and fighting for modern workplace rights like the 40-hour workweek has fallen by the wayside.
“It would be nice if it were more recognized nationally,” says Kurt Krueger, business manager of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 322. “Now [people] look at it as the end of summer and a day for sales. Sad to say, Memorial Day is the same thing — the beginning of summer and more sales.”
A third-generation union leader, Krueger grew up understanding what Labor Day meant. His father would tease the kids on the last holiday before school started by saying: “You’re welcome for this three-day weekend.” When Krueger still worked in the field, he recalls, he had a sticker on his hard hat that read: “Union Labor, from the people who brought you the weekend.”
“The weekend, workplace safety, social security, unemployment – the entire social safety net, things that people now basically take for granted … all of those things are attributed entirely to organized labor,” says Christopher Hayes, an instructor at Rutgers University who specializes in urban and labor history.
“The backdrop for the establishment of Labor Day was the Gilded Age,” says Hayes, “a period of unprecedented wealth for those with names like Carnegie or Rockefeller, but for the vast majority of workers, it was the ‘wild west.’”
Back then, even the elderly and children worked, he says. “No one celebrated the worker. These were people with precarious lives.” There was no job security, no regulations protecting workers, no retirement. Protections enjoyed today took decades to enact.
After that first parade in 1882, Labor Day was introduced state-by-state. New Jersey was one of the first states to sign it into law. Congress didn’t declare it a national holiday until 1894, and only then, Hayes says, to save face following the Pullman railroad strike that effectively shut down the railroads and led to violence in 26 states.
There is great debate as to who first proposed a celebration of labor, whether it was Peter J. McGuire of Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners or Matthew Maguire, a machinist.
But McGuire is the local favorite. He is buried at Arlington Park Cemetery in Pennsauken, and every Labor Day, local unions gather to lay a wreath at his grave and award scholarships to children of union members.
According to Rich Sweeney, president of Iron Workers Union 399 and a second-generation union leader, “It would be nice if [New Jersey] did big parades like the Philadelphia unions do. Philadelphia does a great job. Their building trades go all out,” he said.
Sweeney said he does make an effort to educate apprentices about the history, but would like it if the public had that same awareness. “Even for the people who work non-union, it’s the 40-hour workweek and all the safety; it’s good for them also.”
That union membership has declined over the years doesn’t help the cause. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016 only 10.7 percent of workers across the country were union members, 16.1 percent in New Jersey.
According to Krueger, it would help if leaders, like politicians or the president, even celebrities, would speak out about the significance of Labor Day. But while he would like people to recognize who made the holiday possible, he says, he also wants them to just take the day off and enjoy the time with their families.
The only time the history and significance really comes up, Hayes points out, is in articles like this one.
“It’s sad that it winds up that people have to write articles about how we remember Labor Day,” Hayes says, “which is really pointing out we don’t remember Labor Day.”