Labor Day: A Celebration of the Construction Worker

2 Construction Workers Rally for Change

This weekend we will be celebrating Labor Day. While this signals back to school sales, one of the last days to go to the lake before it gets cold, and according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council the last day of hot dog season, we also wanted to take a couple of minutes to remember the origins of Labor Day in the construction industry.

On Tuesday, September 5, 1882, more than 10,000 workers marched for labor rights down the streets of Manhattan. During this time the average American worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. It wasn't until the Adamson Act passed on September 3, 1916 that our modern eight-hour work day was established. Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, as well as Matthew Maguire, secretary of Local 344 of International Association of Machinists, are attributed for founding the holiday. These construction workers saw an inequality in the working hours on the job site, and decided to band together to march for change to the labor laws and honor the workers that helped to build America. Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.

Unions Find Power in Unity

In the 1800s, only a small fraction of workers were included in a union and often the unions were relatively weak. The goal of organizations like the Central Labor Union was to bring many small unions together to achieve a more powerful group. The organizers of the first Labor Day were interested in creating an event that brought different types of workers together to meet each other and recognize their common interests.

However, no company nor the government recognized the first Monday in September as a day off of work. This resulted in a call for a strike. All striking workers were expected to march in a parade and then eat and drink at a giant picnic afterwards. This article from the New York Tribune described the day as “one long political barbecue”, with “rather dull speeches.” Aside from the “dull” speeches, this event showed solidarity between workers. Workers that had similar concerns, just in different industries. But were picnics and speeches enough?

Changes are Coming

It became evident to the government and to company owners that they had to make a change. They could no longer ignore the general worker. They had to address the issues and seek new solutions. Change was starting to come to the construction and manufacturing industry. The average work week went from 7 days a week, to 6 days a week. The average work hours dropped from 70 hours a week to 60 hours a week. In June of 1894, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with the labor movement as a top political priority and Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894. It was clear that the leaders were willing to make the changes necessary.

Less Means More to the Leaders

Many business owners and politicians found that there was value in giving time off to workers and shortening the work day. Workers who didn’t have time off, didn’t have a chance to spend the money that they had been earning. With the work day being shorter, and time off on the weekends, workers were starting to spend more money on travel, entertainment, and dining out.

As the economy grew out of primarily farming and manufacturing, there was a greater need to find consumers. Without the consumers, there would be no market for the products they were producing. Shortening the work day and work week was one way of turning the working class into a consuming class.  

Thank you

While you are enjoying the last days of summer and your time off from the job, remember how the construction industry was responsible for the holiday. Peter J. McGuire and Matthew Maguire helped to lay the foundation for economic growth. Over 134 years later, economic growth is still on the backs of the construction worker. So over this Labor Day weekend, we salute you and the hard work that you do.

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