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Labor Day Parades
and Celebrations

(Source: U.S. DOL - The History of Labor Day)

A nationwide holiday

The form that the observance and celebration of Labor Day should take were outlined in the first proposal of the holiday -- a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" of the community, followed by a festival for the recreation and amusement of the workers and their families. This became the pattern for the celebrations of Labor Day. Speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civic significance of the holiday.

Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor convention of 1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday and dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the
labor movement.

The character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years, especially in large industrial centers where mass displays and huge parades have proved a problem. This change, however, is more a shift in emphasis and medium of expression.

This being But real the spirit remains the same. Labor Day addresses by leading union officials, industrialists, educators, clerics and government officials are given wide coverage in newspapers, radio and television.

(Source: Labor Day: Labor Day Parade)

Labor Day Parades

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.

(Source: U.S. DOL - The History of Labor Day)

Labor Day Celebrations

"Labor Day differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year in any country.  All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day...is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."

-- Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor.

Yes, that is what Labor Day stands for. True, things have changed these days with Labor Day being celebrated with the civic events usually associated with national holidays in America. But behind all the usual fun and fiesta of a national holiday, the Day has a unique significance.

Traditionally, parades, and speeches by labor leaders and political figures, mark Labor Day celebrations. The spirit is to pay a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the power and prosperity of America.

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This page was last updated August 26, 2003.