Labor Day is a little like Christmas: people have forgotten the meaning of it. While people eagerly wait for their presents, the birth of Christ gets lost somewhere in the wrappings.
The significance of Labor Day gets lost too – in the sandwiches at the beach on the last day of summer. But while you're throwing another hot dog on the barbecue, spare a thought for McGuire, Maguire, Jones, Quill, and Sweeney, to name just a few of the many great Irish labor leaders.
Top Irish Labor leaders:
Mary “Mother” Jones was born Mary Harris in Cork in the early 1800s. She immigrated to Canada, lost her husband and four children in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, then all of her possessions in a Chicago fire.
In her 50s, she became one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World – her work with the United Mine Workers earned her the title “Angel of the Camp.”
One of the many contributions that Mother Jones is remembered for is her work on behalf of the wives and children of strikers, and the 1905 Children’s March, which she led from Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home on Long Island to protest child labor (children as young as seven worked on the slag heaps in Pennsylvania).
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My favorite Mother Jones quote is, “Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living.”
As for Labor Day itself, depending on the source, the holiday is credited to either Peter McGuire or Matthew Maguire. Either way, it’s safe to say that the national day commemorating America’s workers was first proposed by an Irishman.
Peter McGuire was born to Irish immigrant parents on the Lower East Side in New York in 1852. He left school at age 11 to become the breadwinner for his family when his father went off to fight for the Union Army. At 17, he apprenticed at Hanes piano shop. He successfully protested against poor conditions and a wage reduction but was later harassed out of his job.
Unbowed, Peter took his carpentry skills on the road, hopping freight trains and talking to laborers across the country, and in 1881 he organized a convention in Chicago, where the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners was born.
According to most records, McGuire, who was also a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, was the first to propose a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.”
Other sources credit Matthew Maguire, a machinist and member of the International Association of Machinists, as the first to propose setting aside a day to honor American workers. Maguire served as a secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York, which organized the first-ever Labor Day parade in 1882.
In 1905, the same year that Mother Jones, who had been called “the most dangerous woman in America,” was marching her children to New York, Mike Quill was born in Kilgarven, County Kerry.
At fourteen he fought in Ireland’s War of Independence. In 1926, blacklisted for serving with the “anti-Treaty” forces in the Irish Civil War, Quill made his way to America. He was 21.
Times were tough, but he found work constructing the new IND subway line in New York – 12-hour days, seven days a week.
Inspired by the great Irish labor leaders and revolutionaries Jim Larkin and James Connolly, Quill set about organizing the transit workers. And in 1934, with the help of some fellow Irishmen and others, he founded the Transit Workers Union.
Opponents called him “the most dangerous man in America.”
Later, recalling the efforts to organize, Quill said, “We were no experts in the field of labor organization, but we had something in common with our fellow workers: we were all poor; we were all overworked; we were all victims of the 84 hour week. In fact, we were all so low down on the economic and social ladder that we had nowhere to go but up.”
Quill had many victories, including reducing the workweek from seven to six days.
In 1966, he presided over the famous 10-day transit workers strike. The union was successful in increasing the hourly wage from $3.18 to $4.14 an hour and earning an extra paid holiday for workers.
But Quill suffered a heart attack while in jail for contempt during the strike and lived just a couple of weeks past the successful settlement.
On the occasion of his death, Reverend Martin Luther King paid Quill the following tribute: “Mike Quill was a fighter for decent things all his life – Irish Independence, labor organization and racial equality. He spent his life ripping the chains of bondage off his fellow man. This is a man the ages will remember.”
And so, here’s to our modern-day heroes – chief among them John Sweeney who has risen to the top of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
The son of Irish immigrants, Sweeney was born in 1934, the same year Mike Quill founded the Transit Workers Union and his father, a bus driver was a dedicated member. Throughout his life, Sweeney has been a tireless advocate for workers’ rights: fair wages, good jobs, health care, and retirement security.
To draw attention to the plight of immigrant and undocumented workers, the AFL-CIO sponsored the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides and many such marches on Washington.
“The way we are treating the present millions of immigrant workers in our country is a disgrace. Immigrant workers are being exploited even more than they have ever been in our country,” Sweeney told Irish America magazine.
Sweeney was Irish America magazine’s 2004 Irish American of the Year.
“My parents were both Irish immigrants, so we grew up in that culture, where social justice was a big thing," he told Irish America. "It was something that I felt very strongly about, and in my youngest days I could draw the contrast between my father being a member of the union and my mother a domestic worker with no union and no benefits.”
John Sweeney retired in 2009. Thank you, John; together with the other Irish great labor leaders, you have ensured that all of us Irish can take a little extra pride in celebrating Labor Day.
* Originally published in September 2011. Updated in September 2023.