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LABOR DAY: HOW IT REALLY BEGAN

By Dick Meister

It was a grand day in San Francisco. Brass bands blared, flags, banners and torchlights waved high as more than 3,000 union members marched proudly through the city's downtown streets, led by shipyard workers and carpenters and men from dozens of other construction trades.

It was February 21, 1868. "A jollification," the marchers called their parade -- the climax of a three-year campaign of strikes and other pressures that had culminated in the establishment of the eight-hour workday as a legal right in California. It was, despite what most historians say, the country's first Labor Day celebration.

The standard history texts say the first such celebration was held in New York City in 1882, in response to suggestions from one of the city's major union leaders that a day be set aside to honor working men and women. Some historians argue that the suggestion came initially from Peter J. McGuire of the Carpenters Union, a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. Others say they were voiced by machinist union leader Matthew Maguire. But whether they side with McGuire or Macguire, most insist that the New York celebration included the first Labor Day parade, even though it occurred 14 years after that march in San Francisco.

The historians are wrong, of course, although there are some picky ones who leap on the fact that the San Francisco celebration of 1868 was not officially proclaimed as "Labor Day." Well, neither was the New York celebration of 1882.

Honors for holding the first official Labor Day are usually granted the state of Oregon. It proclaimed a Labor Day holiday on February 21, 1887 -- seven years before the Federal Government got around to proclaiming the holiday which is now observed nationwide.

But here, too, the historians are wrong. Oregon's move came nearly a year after Gov. George Stoneman of California issued a proclamation setting aside May 11, 1886 as a legal holiday to honor a new organization of California unions -- the year-old Iron Trades Council. That, said renowned labor historian Ira B. Cross of the University of California, was ~the first legalized Labor Day in the United States."

San Francisco also played a major role in that celebration of 1886. The city was the scene of the chief event -- a march down Market Street by more than 10,000 men and women from some 40 unions, led by the uniformed rank-and-file of the Coast Seamen's Union. Gov. Stoneman and his entire staff marched right along with them. The procession was seven miles long, took more than two hours to pass any given point and generated entbusiasm that the San Francisco Examiner said was "entirely unprecedented -- even in political campaigns."

-- Dick Meister

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