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Labor Day’s Secret Society Connections

Add Labor Day to the vaulted hall of things concocted by secret societies, alongside Madonna's Superbowl performance and Pancho Villa's stolen skull

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Labor day parade, 1882. Image: Wikimedia

Add Labor Day to the vaulted hall of things concocted by secret societies, alongside Madonna’s Superbowl performance and Pancho Villa’s stolen skull.

In 1882, the first Labor Day parade marched through New York City. It was proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a member of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. If that sounds like a legitimate, non-secret worker’s organization, well, it was. But there’s another worker who sometimes gets credit for dreaming up Labor Day—Matthew Maguire (yes, it’s confusing), who was a member of the Knights of Labor, a secret society founded in 1869.

The Knights of Labor was a proper secret society, at first open to only tailors. It grew slowly in the 1870′s, soon welcoming other trades into its ranks. In 1879, Terence V. Powderly took the helm, and in the next seven years the group swelled to 700,000 members. What made the Knights different from many other labor unions was their organization. The History Channel says:

Unlike most trade unions of the day, the Knights’ unions were vertically organized–each included all workers in a given industry, regardless of trade. The Knights were also unusual in accepting workers of all skill levels and both sexes; blacks were included after 1883 (though in segregated locals). On the other hand, the Knights strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Contract Labor Law of 1885; like many labor leaders at the time, Powderly believed these laws were needed to protect the American work force against competition from underpaid laborers imported by unscrupulous employers.

But Powderly also began doing away with all the secret-society business. By 1882 the group was, essentially, a labor union. But the first Labor Day parade still had some secrecy surrounding it. The Illinois Labor History Society explains:

 The parade was timed to coincide with a national Knights of Labor conference being held in New York. This accounts for the presence of almost the entire K of L leadership on the reviewing stand. But their affiliation with labor was masked for the reporters who covered the parade.

The parade was designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of workers, not just society members, and Powderly, for instance, was not introduced as the Grand Master Workman of the Knights of Labor, but as the mayor of Scranton, Pa., his day job. Even so, organizers worried the day would be a total failure. The Department of Labor says:

Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.

For a long time, credit for the parade was given to Peter McGuire, whose union was connected to the American Federation of Labor. But in 1967, a retired machinist from the Knights of Labor claimed that it was not McGuire who proposed Labor Day, but Matthew Maguire from the Knights of Labor. The McGuire vs Maguire controversy hasn’t yet really been solved. The Department of Labor again:

So the historical conundrum seems to hinge on the fact that the two names sound alike and were probably mixed up in the common consciousness. Toss in the years of bitter rivalry between the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor and, of course, you’re going to have multiple heroes emerging in the legend of Labor Day.

So we don’t really know who officially proposed the day. Perhaps the real founder isn’t these two men at all. Secret societies, after all, aren’t known for transparency. Whoever it is, you have them to thank for having all day to think about it.

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

Labor Day Weekend, Coney Island
A Brief History of American Farm Labor

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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