Labor Day History
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.
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.