It was all about a show of force.
In 1869, a handful of men, among them Philadelphia tailors, founded a secret organization, a grand union, which they dubbed the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor. It was secret because they were convinced, with good reason, that if their employers knew they had organized, they’d be fired.
By the mid-1870s, the Knights were organizing Pennsylvania coal miners and membership swelled. The Knights were open to all workers without regard to trades, including railroad workers, steel workers and immigrants – except “bankers, land speculators, lawyers, liquor dealers and gamblers.” Adding bankers to the list might have been superfluous.
In early September 1882, the General Assembly of the Knights of Labor convened in New York City, still secret, which was also prudent because they tended to be socialists; but they organized a public event, for the first Labor Day – a parade, held on Tuesday, Sept. 5, to be followed by a picnic fundraiser – that would bring together workers from a variety of unions, crafts and skills.
Most of the participants worked six days a week for 10 or 12 hours a day, with only Sundays off; no paid vacation, no sick days and few paid holidays.
The parade was held on a Tuesday because organizers believed the workers’ sacrifice of a day’s pay would convey their seriousness.
They met at City Hall. In the lead was the Jewelers Union of Newark, New Jersey, with its own marching band, all of them (all men) dressed in dark suits and derbies. Next came the bricklayers, all in white aprons. Then 700 members of the typographical union. The marchers had banners that read: NO MONEY MONOPOLY and LABOR BUILT THIS REPUBLIC AND LABOR SHALL RULE IT.
An estimated 20,000 workers marched uptown from City Hall, up Broadway, then Fifth Avenue, to Union Square.
“Hundreds of seamstresses hung out the windows along the route cheering the procession blowing kisses and waving their handkerchiefs,” The New York Times reported the next day, in an article on the back page of the paper’s single section.
“Those who rode or marched in the procession were cheerful, and evidently highly gratified with the display,” the paper stated (this was before reporters had bylines). “Nearly all were well-clothed, and some wore attire of fashionable cut. The great majority smoked cigars, and all seemed bent upon having a good time at the picnic grounds. The originators of the labor demonstration, as the parade was spoken of, frankly admitted that the working men were determined to show their numerical strength in order to satisfy the politicians of this city that they must not be trifled with.”
Then they adjourned to their picnic, where they danced to jigs by Irish fiddlers and pipers, and listened to the Bavarian Mountain Singers, “while the flags of Ireland, Germany, France and the USA flapped in the autumn air.”
The second Labor Day parade, the next year, was held on a Monday. By 1886, the tradition had spread to other cities, and state legislatures were on the way to making it a holiday.
The original show of force was eventually subsumed in a three-day weekend; picnics lost their appeal, as did dancing to jigs in our leisure time; and labor never did rule the republic or kill the money monopoly – but much potato salad was consumed, and for a long time it was a mainstay for big store sales of cheap goods manufactured overseas, where no one ever heard of Labor Day.