Home featured Who Founded Labor Day? Descendants of Two Men Tussle Over Legacy

Who Founded Labor Day? Descendants of Two Men Tussle Over Legacy

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For nearly 50 years, Bill Collins, a retired history teacher, spent Labor Day not at a beach or a barbecue, but at a cemetery. He and a dozen or more relatives would gather around the tombstone of his great-grandfather to celebrate his founding of the national workers’ holiday.

JoAnn Richardson, a retired banker, also celebrates the founding of Labor Day. Ms. Richardson shows friends family photos and yellowed newspaper clippings applauding her great-grandfather for proposing the holiday.

Mr. Collins and Ms. Richardson, who are not related, are honoring different men with similar names: Matthew Maguire and Peter J. McGuire.

At least as far back as 1894, there has been a debate over which man is the true father of Labor Day.

Maguire, a machinist, and McGuire, a carpenter, shared a few similarities beyond their last names. Both were respected union leaders with Irish parents, both fought for the betterment of the working class, and both attended the first Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882.

Credit…via Bill Collins
Credit…via JoAnn Richardson

The Department of Labor credits McGuire, who founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and was a co-founder of the organization that later became the American Federation of Labor, as the true father of Labor Day.

But over the years, evidence has emerged suggesting that credit should go to Maguire, the secretary of the Central Labor Union, which organized the first Labor Day parade.

Now, researchers from MyHeritage, a genealogy site based in Israel, say they have uncovered additional evidence that Maguire deserves credit, after gathering records from descendants of McGuire and Maguire. A key piece of evidence, they say, is an interment card from 1917, held at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, N.J., where Maguire is buried, that includes a handwritten message: “This man founded Labor Day.” (A spokeswoman for the cemetery said she did not know who wrote those words or when.)

Ms. Richardson, a great-granddaughter of McGuire, said she did not think there was any truth to claims that someone else was the actual father of Labor Day.

“I would fall right off my chair,” said Ms. Richardson, 76, who lives in Florida. “There’s no way I would believe it after all these years.”

Credit…via JoAnn Richardson

In 1956, when she was 12, she was a guest of honor at a White House ceremony in which President Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled a stamp dedicated to McGuire and the labor movement.

Since McGuire’s death in 1906, union officials and politicians have made an annual pilgrimage to Pennsauken, N.J., to visit his gravestone and a statue in his honor. Inscribed into both are the words “Father of Labor Day.”

On Friday, in an event that was smaller than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic, about 20 officials, including Representative Donald Norcross of New Jersey, visited McGuire’s grave to honor him and the workers he championed. Mr. Norcross said he had visited the grave for nearly 60 years, since he was a small child.

Referring to Labor Day, Mr. Norcross, a Democrat, said McGuire “was the person who led the charge to actually get this done.”

Unlike McGuire’s grave, Maguire’s is modest and makes no mention of Labor Day.

ImageRepresentative Donald Norcross spoke on Friday at a yearly wreath-laying ceremony at the Peter J. McGuire Memorial in Pennsauken, N.J.
Credit…Office of Representative Donald Norcross

Mr. Collins, 75, who also lives in Florida, said his family never had any doubt that Maguire, not McGuire, deserved the credit. Mr. Collins’s uncle, also named Matthew Maguire, started the Maguire Association in the early 1970s to promote Maguire as the true founder.

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the father of Labor Day,” Mr. Collins said.

The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in 1882, when thousands of workers, including Maguire and McGuire, rode in carriages or marched in a procession uptown. They carried banners calling for, among other reforms, “Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work,” according to a New York Times account of the parade.

As the economy recovered from the depression of the 1870s, there was a growing sense among American workers that capitalism had become corrupted by business leaders who had amassed too much power, said Edward T. O’Donnell, a history professor at the College of the Holy Cross whose research focuses on the Gilded Age. The parade was both a celebration of the contributions the working class had made in the United States and a protest against inequality.

Credit…Frank Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated Newspaper, via Wikimedia Commons

The New York parade grew in size each year, and states and municipalities adopted legislation to recognize Labor Day. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law declaring Labor Day a federal holiday.

Within days, a New Jersey newspaper, The Morning Call, published an editorial titled “Honor to Whom Honor Is Due,” arguing that Cleveland should have given credit to Maguire, the “undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

The mix-up may be explained by Maguire’s reservedness and his focus on seeking justice for workers, rather than on his legacy, Mr. Collins said, citing his mother’s description of his great-grandfather. McGuire, on the other hand, seemed to have no problem taking credit.

“It really has to do with the different personalities of the two men — one an extrovert, one an introvert, one self-serving and the other not,” Mr. Collins said.

At the center of the debate is a Central Labor Union meeting that took place in May 1882. In an 1897 article in The Carpenter, a monthly union publication, McGuire wrote that he first proposed the holiday at that meeting. The parade’s grand marshal, William McCabe, later recalled, in an 1897 article in The Cleveland Recorder, that Maguire, not McGuire, proposed the idea at that meeting.

Still, over time, McGuire became accepted as the founder. Maguire, who ran for vice president on the Socialist Labor Party ticket in 1896, may have been pushed aside because his political beliefs were deemed too radical to be associated with Labor Day, Mr. Collins said.

Michael Kazin, a history professor and labor historian at Georgetown University, said that he did not know who had the original idea, but that it took more than one person to persuade the federal government to adopt a new national holiday.

“It caught on locally, gradually, more than in one fell swoop,” he said.

Mr. Collins said he was not bothered that, for 126 years, Maguire, his great-grandfather, had been overshadowed.

“Both of them were working for the same goal: an eight-hour workday for workers and a holiday to celebrate the laboring-class people,” Mr. Collins said. “In the long run, it really doesn’t matter. We have Labor Day.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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