Labor Day is here again, summer’s last fling. Parades, picnics, back to school sales all take center stage. Not so long ago it was different. Labor Day was a holiday meant to honor the American workers who built this country; that aspect often seems to get lost.
The first Labor Day, organized by the Central Labor Union, was celebrated in New York City on September 5, 1882. In 1894 congress made it a federal holiday celebrated coast to coast. There is some contention about who first came up with the idea of Labor Day, Patrick McGuire or Matthew McGuire, but there is no doubt it was an Irishman. The Irish were heavily involved with the early American labor movement, and why wouldn’t they be? They held the most dangerous, lowest paying jobs available. And they were among the least appreciated; should one Irishman fall, there was always another willing to heft his pickaxe. Canals, railroads and mines, they were there, and the conditions were horrendous.
While there were many Irish Americans who worked to improve circumstances for workers, I promised this would be brief, so three of the better known:
Terence V. Powderly, head of the Knights of Labor from 1879-1893, was the son of Irish immigrants who began his working career on the railroad at the age of thirteen. After he was appointed head of the Knights of Labor, he helped establish labor bureaus and arbitration systems. While serving the union, he was elected to three terms as mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1897 he was appointed U.S. Commissioner General of Information and later, head of the Division of Information in the Bureau of Immigration.
James Cardinal Gibbons also of Irish immigrant parentage was dismayed at the exploitation of Irish Catholics in the workforce. He worked closely with Terence Powderly, and between the two of them, they persuaded the Pope to end his objections to Catholics joining labor unions. After his death in 1921 a journalist wrote of him, “He had Rome against him often, but he always won in the end, for he was always right.”
Mary Harris Jones, who was born in Cork, came to Canada as a teenager with her family. She later moved to the United States where she married George Jones. They were living in Memphis when yellow fever struck the city. Mary endured the loss of her husband and all four of her children to the disease. She later moved to Chicago where she opened a dress shop only to lose everything she possessed to the great fire. Still, despite her personal tragedies, she devoted herself to improving the lives of working men and women and especially children. Her “boys” in the mining camps of Pennsylvania called her “Mother Jones” and the “angel of the mines”.
So today, enjoy the holiday, truly an Irish American holiday. But do stop for a moment and raise a pint to the McGuires, Terrence Powderly and Cardinal Gibbons and to Mother Jones and all the other Irish labor leaders who made it possible.