September 5th, 1882 the first Labor Day was celebrated. However, there is some controversy on who first proposed the holiday. Not surprising because this is America and it wouldn’t be an interesting story if it were easy. Peter Maguire and Matthew Maguire share credit for Labor Day but it was an unique and diverse coalition that fueled its inspiration.
Peter Maguire was the founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and a leading figure in the American Federation of Labor. He campaigned for an eight hour workday as a political activist. Maguire: “We must elevate the craft, protect its interests, advance wages, reduce the hours of labor, spread correct economic doctrines and cultivate a spirit of fraternity among the working people regardless of creed, color, nationality or politics. These principles are the foundation principles of our organization.” His words have new meaning for today’s world and economic downturn.
Some historians believe that Matthew Maguire was the father of Labor Day. He was one of the founding members of the Central Labor Union of New York in 1882. Because Matthew Maguire was the secretary, historical writings exist showing how his correspondence with other unions wanting a day to celebrate labor.
Regardless, both gentlemen worked toward the same goal protecting worker’s rights. However, let’s not forget the women that made a difference. In 1825, the first women only union was formed, The United Tailoresses of New York.
An important labor figure, Sarah Bagley, formed the Female Labor Reform Association in 1845 to reduce the work hours per day to ten and to improve worker’s conditions. Ms. Bagley also wrote for the Lowell Offering, a literary magazine whose mission was to show that women could write and wanted to learn!
In 1881, three thousand African American women laundry workers organized a strike making it the most effective shutdown the South had ever experienced. Imagine during that time what an accomplishment it was for these brave and amazing women to stand up for justice!
So on this holiday, I think about the true meaning behind this day. According to the United States Department of Labor’s website: “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”
However, American workers have been attacked on many levels for years. Corporations don’t think twice about shipping jobs overseas and our government gives tax breaks to companies to encourage this. Since 1999, over 42,000 factories have shutdown in American due to unfair trade policies. Let’s not forget the Supreme Court’s decision to give corporations the same rights as individuals (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) and recently Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said “…corporations are people.”
Today’s labor chant might go like this:
If corporations are people, I would like to pay the same taxes they do.
If corporations are people, I would like a bailout.
If corporations are people, I would like to buy a politician.
If corporations are people, who makes the decision to pull their plug?
If corporations are people, can Americans divorce them to?
On this Labor Day, American workers need to be celebrated and supported. Let’s do whatever it takes to make our country strong and secure for future generations. Individual citizens want to work with corporations and hope the sentiment is reciprocated. Maybe our government starts working for the people again? This is my wish for the future of America.