President Grover Cleveland signed Labor Day into law in 1894. Image via Samuele Wikipediano 1348, Wikimedia Commons
NEW YORK—Did you wake up this morning feeling a little more relaxed, knowing you have a three-day weekend ahead of you? Or maybe you woke up somewhere other than home, celebrating the unofficial end of summer with a trip away to the beach, the woods or to see friends and family. Depending on your job, it’s likely that you’re settling into a long weekend today—something we have history and labor unions to thank for. 

President Grover Cleveland first made Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, in direct response to the summer of 1894’s Pullman Strike, where railroad workers in Pullman, Illinois (now part of Chicago) organized a strike due to slashed wages and mass firings. As The New York Times reports, activist Eugene V. Debs led the strike, which eventually resulted in tens of thousands of workers walking off the job. It was this that led President Cleveland to sign the bill declaring Labor Day into law on June 28, 1894. 

But the history of Labor Day started even before the Pullman Strike. American workers held their first Labor Day parade 12 years earlier, on September 5, 1882, when it was entirely common for workers in the U.S. to have 12-hour work days, seven days a week—including young children. This first parade saw about 10,000 people march from New York City Hall to a picnic uptown. The Times reports that this 10,000-strong parade was actually significantly smaller than organizers had expected, but that workers in attendance included “cigarmakers, dressmakers, printers, shoemakers, bricklayers and other tradespeople.” Because Labor Day was not yet an official holiday, most of these workers risked their jobs in order to march—which explains the smaller than expected turnout. 

 James Maguire (l) and Peter J. McGuire (r). Image via U.S. Department of Labor 
We can trace the history of Labor Day pretty well, but one mystery remains: who can we actually credit as the founder of Labor Day? Two men, Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire, battle it out in history. 

McGuire was the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1882, as well as a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor. As the U.S. Department of Labor explains, some records state that McGuire proposed a “general holiday for the laboring classes,” in 1882, something some cite as the first Labor Day. 

However, the DOL reports, Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, New Jersey, also reportedly proposed the holiday in 1882, while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York.

The DOL writes, “According to the New Jersey Historical Society, after President Cleveland signed the law creating a national Labor Day, the Paterson Morning Call published an opinion piece stating that ‘the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.’ Both Maguire and McGuire attended the country’s first Labor Day parade in New York City that year.”

Suffragettes march on Labor Day. Image via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA 
The DOL reports that Maguire’s contributions to Labor Day were only uncovered “recently,” and that history has generally overlooked him as a Labor Day founder, instead credited McGuire alone. But why? Well, the DOL writes, “According to The First Labor Day Parade, by Ted Watts, Maguire held some political beliefs that were considered fairly radical for the day and also for Samuel Gompers [founder of the American Federation of Labor, alongside McGuire] and his American Federation of Labor. Allegedly, Gompers did not want Labor Day to become associated with the sort of ‘radical’ politics of Matthew Maguire, so in an 1897 interview, Gompers' close friend Peter J. McGuire was assigned the credit for the origination of Labor Day.”

Over a century later, we may never know the truth behind who founded Labor Day, but what we do know is that we have hundreds of thousands of Americans to thank for our long weekend. We rest on their metaphorical shoulders, with our 8-hour workdays and regular holidays, and it’s worth raising a glass to them this long weekend.