The first Labor Day took place in New York City Sept. 5, 1882. It consisted of unions marching in a parade and a massive picnic. Following the event several states began moving to institute their own Labor Day. Finally, a bill was approved in 1894 making the first Monday of September a nationally recognized holiday.
Labor Day has been a celebration of the American worker. The day also plays tribute to the labor movement and the history of unions. A history commonly associated with the fight for worker’s rights, protests, strikes, legislative battles and even the mob.
The history of organized labor is also marked with strange coincidences, weird moments and unlikely partnerships. These are some of strangest historical facts about the labor movement in America.
1. We’re Not Sure Whether McGuire Or Maguire Started Labor Day
No one is quite sure who started Labor Day. Historians have narrowed it down to two possibilities. According to the Department of Labor, seven years after that first New York Labor Day parade, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters laid claim that an official in its ranks, Peter J. McGuire, made the original proposal to have the Labor Day event in New York. The union also claimed he called for one day a year to be set aside for Labor Day.
In 1967, however, a retired machinist from the Knights of Labor claimed Matthew Maguire, an official in his union, proposed the idea of Labor Day. Matthew Maguire and Peter McGuire had very similar backgrounds despite being in two rival unions. A lot of historians blame their similar names on the mystery.
2. President Ronald Reagan Was Also A Union President
During his time in office, President Ronald Reagan had an interesting view on labor unions. While he did support the idea of unions and collective bargaining, he also fought them on several occasions. Most notably, as detailed by The New York Times, was the confrontation Reagan had with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. At the time he threatened to fire roughly 13,000 air traffic controllers unless they called off an illegal strike.
Long before becoming president of the United States, Reagan served as president of The Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. According to the Guild website, he was appointed in 1947. The union board of director was impressed with how the actor handled a series of violent strikes in 1946 when serving as vice president.
3. Richard Nixon And Jimmy Hoffa Were Very Friendly
Republican President Richard Nixon And Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa are often associated with using their positions of power for illegal purposes. It is not known exactly what sort of relationship Nixon and Hoffa had, but the two did help each other on several occasions.
Biography online notes that in 1971, Hoffa was released from jail after Nixon commuted his sentence to time served. He had served four of a total of 13 years for bribery, jury tampering and misusing union funds and pensions. As part of his release, Hoffa was barred from holding a union leadership position until 1980.
It was alleged that the union paid off Nixon to get Hoffa released. The accusations, however, were never proven. As detailed in the book, “There Is Power in a Union,” by Philip Dray, following his release, the Teamsters endorsed Nixon for president when he was running for reelection in 1972. This despite the union usually endorsing the Democratic nominee.
4. Union Leader Jimmy Hoffa Disappears
Beyond being an iconic union leader and criminal, Hoffa made his fair share of enemies. Enemies believed to have been involved in his disappearance in 1975. To this day, however, it is not known what actually happened to him. In what became one of the most well-known mysteries in the history of unions and organized crime, Hoffa just simply vanished.
As detailed by Biography online, Hoffa was to meet with a rival mob-connected union leader at a restaurant near his home in Detroit. Hoffa was the only one to show up. The events to follow remain a mystery but many theories have tried to explain what happened. Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982. The FBI has tried on numerous occasions to find his body but has not been successful.
5. This Union Started As A Secret Society
The Knights of Labor was once a secret society. As noted by the History Channel online, it began in 1869 and consisted of tailors in Philadelphia. In secret the union fought for the eight-hour work week, abolishing child labor and the graduated income tax. The secrecy was to prevent employers from firing members. Its membership grew quickly to include other industries. By 1886 it had 700,000 members resulting in the union changing its rules about being secret.
6. A Communist-Led Labor Fight Gave Rise To The Teamsters
During the summer of 1934, tensions between trucker drivers and the trucking companies in Minneapolis, Minn. eventually broke out into fighting and brutality. Led by the Trotskyist Communist League of America, truckers and police clashed on the streets wounding 67 and leaving two dead. The strike and violence helped set the stage for the Teamsters becoming the powerful political force it is today.
“The first major instance of violence was on May 19 when police attacked a group of strikers who were attempting to stop scabs unloading a truck in the city’s market area,” the Teamsters detailed. “About 35,000 building workers had walked out in protest of the police violence and many more struck for union recognition.”
The local Teamsters chapter remained under socialist leadership until 1941. By then, leaders of the union and the Socialist Workers Party were sentenced to federal prison. The sentencing marked the first convictions under the anti-radical Smith Act. The law would eventually be found unconstitutional.
7. Labor Icon Cesar Chavez Turned His Union Into A Cult
Cesar Chavez is one of the most iconic union leaders in American history. He was an activists in both the civil rights and labor movement. He also founded the United Farm Workers (UFW). At one point Chavez was inspired by the group Synanon to turn his union into a cult.
Synanon started as a drug rehabilitation center which eventually declared itself a religion. As detailed in the book “From the Jaws of Victory,” by Matthew Garcia, the decision to become a religion was in large part to fend off investigators and lawsuits. The group attracted attention by utilizing a method of psychological treatment known as the “Game.”
As noted in Forbes, the “Game” consisted of addicts being subjected to sterilization, having their heads shaved, continual submission and having their insufficiencies constantly shouted at them. Though the union board of directors opposed the idea, Chavez instituted his version of the Synanon “Game” at the UFW headquarters. Beyond the bullying and psychological tactics, the change also meant communal living and union staff having to pledge loyalty oaths to Chavez.
8. A Labor Agreement Inspired By A Spiritual Awakening
In the late 1940s, the Air Line Pilots Association and the National Airlines were having difficultly reaching a labor agreement. That was until airline executive Ted Baker had a spiritual awakening at a religious retreat. According to the book, “On the Ground,” by Liesl Miller Orenic, Baker came back from the retreat asking pilots for forgiveness and blaming the dispute on the “power of Satan.”
9. Providing Good Will To Himself
In the 1950s, Chicago-based union leader Angelo Inciso was called before the U.S. Senate for questionable use of union funds. He spent $1,200 for a men’s diamond ring and used funds for an overseas “goodwill tour.” As stated by the Chicago Tribune, when senators asked “To whom were you spreading goodwill?” Inciso answer, “myself.”
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