Labor Day History

Labor Day History

Bill Droel

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     Labor Day began in 1882 when machinist Matthew Maguire (1855-1917) and carpenter  Peter Maguire (1852-1906) organized a parade in New York City. Both, though unrelated, were Catholic laymen active in the Knights of Labor, the first successful national union in this country. The New York parade was repeated in 1883 and 1884.

     Soon thereafter Oregon, and then a few other states, began honoring working people with an official Labor Day on the first Saturday of June. It was later changed to the first  Monday in September. Finally in 1894 Congress voted for that day to be a national holiday.

     Once upon a time I was part of a lobby to change the feast of St. Joseph the Worker from May First to the first Monday in September in the United States only. The proposal got a fair hearing from the U.S. bishops but the inertia of bureaucracy stopped us.
     May First means something to workers in Europe, but strangely not to people in the U.S. Strangely because that date commemorates an event in my sweet home, Chicago. It all started on May 1, 1886 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Union, with a city permit, demonstrated for the enforcement of eight-hour work laws. A previously scheduled follow-up rally was held on May Fourth. “No single event has influenced the history of labor in the U.S. and even the world more than this [1886] Haymarket Affair,” writes William Adelman in Haymarket Revisited (Illinois Labor History, 1976).Late in the evening someone at the rally threw dynamite; the police fired wildly. Soon seven police and four workers were dead. Eight workers were quickly arrested, including a lay minister, a printer and others. Seven were found guilty in August. One was given 15 years; two got life sentences; one was killed in jail. The remaining three were hanged in November.

     Thus by July 1889 European countries designated May First as Labor Day to honor Chicago’s Haymarket workers. The European date, contrary to assumptions, does not point to any date associated with communism.

Haymarket history was pushed aside in the U.S. and young adults now know of our Haymarket area only as a trendy place to eat. Catholics risk losing a crucial part of our identity if we forget our own labor history.

Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921) of Baltimore spoke up in Rome in 1887 for the Knights of Labor and thereafter he spoke stateside in support of the Catholic doctrine on labor relations. His good pastoral sense was not always the norm in Europe and Canada. The close cooperation between the U.S. labor movement and Catholicism benefited both for an importantcentury in our nation’s growth.

The connection between labor and, to use the current jargon, new evangelization was particularly strong in the years before and just after World War II. There were several “labor priests” in those days including Chicagoans Msgr. John Hayes (1906-2002), Msgr. Dan Cantwell (1915-1996) and Msgr. George Higgins (1916-2002), who spent most of his career at the national bishops’ conference. There were also several outstanding U.S. “lay apostles” who devoted themselves to nurturing the relationship. They staffed over 100 Catholic labor schools where workers were trained in parliamentary procedure, history and Catholic social doctrine.They produced inspiring newspapers, including Work here in Chicago. And they formed some networks operating alongside the labor movement, including the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists and the Catholic Labor Alliance. A good start on this history is reading Go To the Worker by Kimball Baker (Marquette University Press, 2010).

Of course, things have changed. But young adults are still invested in their jobs—probably more so than in the industrial era. The challenge is to assist them with new ideas and new forums. The future of the U.S. Catholic church, despite worthwhile energy devoted to other projects, largely depends on a turn toward the world of work.

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter about faith and work.

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