The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Celebrating Our Labor History

Aug 29, 2022

Labor Day was first celebrated on September 5, 1882, a Tuesday, with a parade called by the New York Central Labor Unions.

Peter McGuire, a carpenter and union leader in New York’s Central Labor Union council proposed a holiday for labor, and the council chose September 5, a work day, so that all who attended would have to give up a day’s pay. Some accounts say 10,000 workers attended, some say 30,000, but at any rate, there were cloth cutters, horse-shoers, shoe-makers, cigar-makers, bricklayers, printers, house painters, freight handlers, cabinet makers and so on.

Laboring people had had to fight, to demonstrate, even strike against the U.S. bosses exploiting them. Even before the Civil War, workers tried to fight for a 10-hour work day, since many had to labor 12 or 14 hours a day and a half day more on Saturday. A petition for the eight-hour day had reached the California legislation signed by 11,000 people in 1866.

In New York, labor was strong enough in 1864 to resist the bosses’ attempts at an anti-strike bill. An April 7 rally that spring in New York City brought together iron molders, carpenters, bricklayers, fur workers, clothing workers, some with shouts of "We will send them to hell next election."

In 1894, thanks to actions by working people, Congress agreed to make the first Monday in September a holiday in honor of labor. In Europe, a number of countries celebrated a day for labor on the first of May. But since that day was associated first with pagan rites that the Christian churches opposed, and then with radicals, like the socialists and communists of the mid-19th century, politicians and the more conservative union leaders in the U.S. preferred the September date.

Large Labor Day parades continued in New York up until World War I.

The 1930s saw organizing, especially among unorganized workers across the country. It was these fights, sit-ins, demonstrations and strikes that built the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Workers, drawing millions into unions and winning better wages and benefits for working people for at least a generation.

Labor Day parades, occurring in thousands of U.S. cities on the first Monday of September, captured that spirit of achievement.