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The Irish Involved In Labor Day


Posted 28/08/2019

With Labor Day just around the corner, we have taken a look at some of the Irish involved in the American Labor Movement. Unsurprisingly, Irish immigrants and those with Irish ancestry had a huge role to play in the Labor Movement. 

Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 to celebrate the accomplishments of American workers across the country. The large influx of Irish into the industrial cities of America after the Famine had a large role to play in the Labor Movement. The huge strides made in workers' rights has been largely attributed to the work of Irish-Americans in the late 1800s. 

Peter McGuire

Many people credit Peter McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, with establishing the holiday. McGuire was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Irish immigrant parents in 1852. Aged 17 he began an apprenticeship in the Haines Brothers Piano Company. During his time here he successfully campaigned against poor working conditions and wage reductions but he was later forced out of the company. 

McGuire spent the next few years working as a carpenter around the country and he is credited with founding Labor Parties all across America. By 1881 he had set up shop in Chicago where he founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners with Gustav Luebkert. According to records, it was McGuire who first proposed a day to honor the workers 'who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold'.

This son of Longford immigrants accomplished many things but by the early 1900s his work had taken its toll. He was voted out of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1902 and in his last address he stated, 'A man wears out like a piece of machinery...I am not lost entirely in this world but I have had enough to wreck me physically and destroy me mentally'. 

McGuire passed away in 1906 after suffering with alcoholism for many years. In 2014, McGuire was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame for his role in the Labor Movement. 

Matthew Maguire

Different sources credit New Jersey-born Matthew Maguire with the establishment of Labor Day. Another son of Irish immigrants, Maguire was the Secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. He organized the first-ever Labor Day parade on the streets of New York on Tuesday the 5th of September 1882. Two years later it was decided that Labor Day would be celebrated on the first Monday in September where it has remained since. Maguire would go on to run as a Vice-Presidential candidate in 1896 for the Socialist Labor Party of America. 

Powderly, Jones & Quill

Other prominent Irish-Americans include Terence Vincent Powderly, Mother Jones and Mike Quill. Powderly is still remembered by Irish-Americans for the work he did in the latter half of the 1800s. The 11th child of Terence Powderly and Madge Walsh, he suffered with the Measles and Scarlet Fever in his childhood which left him permanently deaf in one ear.

He is best remembered as the leader of the Knights of Labor. The Knights of Labor became the biggest force in the American Labor movement with over one million members in the early 1900s. He is also credited as being a great representative for the rights of women and African-Americans during the same period. The Knights of Labor eventually got left to one side as the aforementioned American Federation of Labor became more prominent. Powderly was inducted into the U.S Department of Labor's Hall of Honor in 1999 and his former home in Scranton, PA is a National Historic Landmark. 

Mary Harris Jones, more commonly known as Mother Jones, was a Cork-born schoolteacher and labor representative who later co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World. Her husband and four children all died of yellow fever in 1867 and her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. It was after this that she decided to commit her time to the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers.

She was noted for her success in organizing protests, most notably the 'March of the Mill Children' where she organised a march to President Theodore Roosevelt's Philadelphia home. She also organized many successful protests for miner's working conditions. Her success in rallying protesters led her to be known as 'the most dangerous woman in America' in 1902. She played up to the Mother Jones tag by describing the miners as 'her boys'. She was very well respected by the mining community and after her death in 1930, the United Mine Workers raised $16000 to pay for an elaborate gravestone in the Union Miners Cemetry in Illinois. 

One of Mother Jones' most famous quotes is still used as a rallying call for Unions across the world today; 'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living'.

The great Mike Quill followed in the footsteps of Mother Jones in the 1930s and he became known as 'the most dangerous man in America'. Quill was born in Kilgarvan, County Kerry and he fought in the Irish War of Independence as a 14-year-old before moving to New York aged 21. He spent his early years in New York working with his uncle Patrick Quill, a conductor on the subway. During his time working as a 'ticket chopper' on the night shift, Quill had time to read about labor history and in particular the work of James Connolly and Jim Larkin in Ireland.

In 1934, he founded the Transport Workers Union along with a number of other Irishmen. He was a great revolutionary and he fought for years for an improvement in workers' rights. He has two great successes to his name. He is credited with reducing the workweek from seven to six days but his most famous contribution to the Labor Movement was the organisation of the 12-day Transit Workers strike in 1966. He was the mastermind of the strike which started on New Year's Day 1966. Subway and public buses were grounded for the first 12 days of the year. Quill was jailed on the 4th of January for his role in the strike but he continued to campaign and he secured a pay rise from $3.18 to $4.14 for his workers among other benefits. Unfortunately his ill-health caught up with him shortly after this success and he died of a heart attack on the 28th January 1966. His funeral was held in St. Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue with an Irish tricolor draped on his coffin. 

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a tribute to 'Red Mike' after his death stating that 'he spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. This is a man the ages will remember.'

Remember your Irish Ancestors and family
We recently heard from Mary who purchased a memorial. She had a box full of photo albums in her office and didn't know what to do with them, having removed them from her dad's attic upon selling the old farm. She had heard of Eternally Irish through and thought it might be something for her to do one weekend with a few family members. She called around and invited her siblings and cousins over for brunch. The rest of the weekend involved telling stories by the fire, plenty of food and beverages, reminiscing about that crazy aunt or uncle or talking lovingly about Grandpa Pat and Ma. Everyone was given the task of taking 5 photos of 1 relative, using Canva to touch up the photo if necessary and creating an Eternally Irish memorial. Then each person had to upload a comment or story to each respective memorial. 1 fun weekend and 5 memorials later! Why not to do the same with your family soon? Labor Day is coming up! 

Click here to create your own Eternally Irish Memorial