By Cyndie Williams
Every morning when I walk into my office, I see a portrait that was built into the wall by the cabinetmaker who called this space theirs long before me.
The man in the portrait is obviously from a different era, with eyes that seem to watch over you from every angle, like it or not.
He is a person I revere and respect as a member of the carpenters Union and that is why I want to tell you more about him as we head into Labor Day weekend.
The man is Peter J. McGuire, who you might know as the Father of Labor Day. He was born in New York City in 1852 to poor Irish immigrants. He left school at 11 years old to work when his father went to fight for the Union Army. He became apprenticed to a piano maker at age 15 and became active in labor and politics. His vision of a national labor federation to unite workers across trades and industries eventually became the American Federation of Labor.
McGuire was an effective organizer and agitator, but his greatest skill was seeing the collective power of a united working class. In the midst of a severe economic depression in the late 1800s he organized the first Carpenters Union in St. Louis and through collective action they won such a large wage gain that it attracted the attention of carpenters everywhere. After this win, working carpenters collectively met in Chicago and created the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, the Union I am a proud member of today.
Through his negotiating skills and understanding of collective action, he began to fight for things we consider common place today, such as the 8-hour workday and unemployment benefits. He realized that no worker could have dignity unless they demanded it, which is why he introduced a resolution calling for workers to have a festive parade through the streets of New York City, in what we know as Labor Day. The first Labor Day parade was attended by 30,000 marching workers celebrating their victories and continued fight for rights and dignity.
Today, Labor Day is far more than just a long weekend. It is a time for us to remember that the things we take for granted like the weekend and overtime pay were hard fought for. It is a time to remember the thousands of workers who made the world better for us today, including heroes like McGuire.
Thanks to the joint efforts of McGuire and organized labor, millions of workers enjoy better wages, better benefits, and better lives. McGuire’s union the United Brotherhood of Carpenters continues this fight today by representing and advocating carpenters, piledrivers, millwrights, and other skilled trades people and working with their industry partners to make it a better world to work in.
When I walk into my office after the long weekend, when I look at his portrait, I will remember his fight and think about the thousands of labor heroes whose portraits could not fit on my walls.