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
-- Dick Meister