Peter J. McGuire
Labor leader
Born: July 6, 1852, in New York City
Died: February 18, 1906, in Camden, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2014: Public Service

Peter J. McGuire is best-remembered as the driving force behind the adoption of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1894. But that distinction is largely symbolic compared to the material gains he helped achieve for American and Canadian workers as a labor activist and organizer.

Born into a poor Irish family in New York City, McGuire came early to activism. He began working in a piano shop as a young teenager, when his father left the family to join the Union Army. At the piano shop, he helped lead a fight against a wage cut. He soon became active in labor and radical circles throughout the city.

By the time he was 21, McGuire emerged as a leader of the newly formed Committee for Public Safety, a radical group that pressed New York authorities for economic assistance for the unemployed. When local police refused the group a permit for a rally, a violent confrontation in Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park ensued; McGuire was among those arrested.

In 1877, McGuire moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as a carpenter and began organizing local carpenters, winning wage gains that attracted national attention in labor circles. His belief in a broader labor movement led to the establishment in 1881 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBC), a national organization linking local carpenters’ unions in a common cause. McGuire was chosen as first general secretary of the new union. He would be the union’s top official for the next 20 years.

In 1881, McGuire also spurred the formation of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor. Moving back to New York, McGuire focused his advocacy on safer workplace conditions and fair wages. He became a prominent figure in the movement for an eight-hour work day and a five-day work week.

To demonstrate worker solidarity, in 1882 McGuire proposed the idea of a New York workers’ parade on the first Monday of September. The parade gradually caught on in cities around the country. By 1894, Congress recognized Labor Day as a national holiday.

In 1886, when the FOTLU reorganized as the American Federation of Labor, McGuire was elected as the AFL’s first secretary. Still at the helm of the UBC, he built the carpenters’ union into the AFL’s largest affiliate. In 1890, he organized a nationwide UBC strike that resulted in significant gains toward the eight-hour work day in at least 36 cities.

Today, the UBC remains a powerful force, representing more than 500,000 skilled men and women across the United States, including 20,000 in New Jersey.

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