First Labor Day Parade, 1882, Union Square NYC
On Saturday, July 21, 1877, 17 workers involved in a nationwide railroad strike were shot dead in Pittsburgh. The next day, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a New York Protestant minister who had been one of the most eloquent orators against slavery, preached these words:
"God had intended the great to be great and the little to be little…The trade unions, originated under the European system, destroy liberty…I do not say that a dollar a day is enough to support a man and five children if he insists on smoking and drinking beer…[b]ut the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live."The 1882 labor parade was the culmination of more than ten years of agitating and organizing by dedicated labor activists in New York. These activists were deeply committed to the fight for the eight-hour day and against the repressive tactics of the employers. They also worked closely with the leaders of what were at that time New York’s largest immigrant communities to assist the fight for justice in three countries: Ireland, France and Germany.
The 1882 parade took place in a city which had seen militiamen open fire on Irish-American Catholic demonstrators in 1871; where thousands demonstrated for the eight-hour day in 1872; and where three demonstrations had already taken place in 1882 to demand justice for Ireland in its fight against British rule. (All three demonstrations had been jointly sponsored by labor organizations and organizations fighting for Irish freedom.)
Because the 1882 labor parade was held on a work day, most of the participants had to give up a day’s pay in order to march. (The CLU even levied a fine on non-participants.) In all, the workers involved forfeited about $75,000 in lost wages.
The parade was scheduled to coincide with a national conference of the Knights of Labor being held in New York. This explains why almost the entire national leadership of the Knights of Labor was present on the parade’s reviewing stand in Union Square. However, the affiliation of these leaders with the Knights of Labor was discreetly hidden from the press that day. (At the time, the Knights of Labor was still a semi-secret society.) For instance, the top leader of the Knights of Labor - "Grand Master Workman" Terence Powderly - was introduced only as the mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania (which he was).
The vibrant character of the labor movement of that time can be seen by looking at three extraordinary people present on the reviewing stand at the 1882 parade:
Patrick Ford was the publisher and editor of the Irish World, a newspaper which strongly supported labor and the fight for Irish freedom. He had been brought to Boston from Ireland in 1842 at the age of seven. Ford had served his printing apprenticeship with newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, America’s leading opponent of slavery, before the Civil War. In 1870, Ford founded the Irish World, a newspaper which was regularly suppressed when it was shipped to Ireland.
John Swinton was the chief editorial writer of the New York Sun. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he had moved to New York in 1850 and worked as a printer and became an abolitionist. Swinton had been with John Brown when he made his famous raid on Osawatomie, Kansas in 1857. Swinton would go on to start his own pro-labor newspaper in 1883.
Carl Daniel Adolf Douai was the publisher and editor of the New Yorker Volkszeitung, a socialist German-language daily. Douai was a German immigrant who had been threatened with lynching when he spoke out against slavery while publishing in Texas. In 1860, he moved to New York where he became active in socialist, abolitionist, and Republican Party activities.
The presence of these three men on the reviewing stand - and the presence of Irish, French, and German flags (in addition to the U.S. flag) at the picnic which closed the day - illustrates the wide scope of labor’s concerns at that time. These leaders’ involvement with the parade (and the militant banners carried by the marchers) show that from its very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has been about more than just getting its members a few cents more an hour in wages. From its inception, the labor movement in this country has included both native and foreign-born leaders and immigrant workers have always played an important role in the labor movement. From the very beginning, the U.S. labor movement has included elements who have not been afraid to challenge the legitimacy of the wages system itself.That’s definitely worth remembering this Labor Day.
The first Labor Day parade: "Let Labor Unite"