Dick Meister: Labor Day began in San Francisco in 1886

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By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

By some reckoning, this is the 118th Labor Day, since it was first observed as a national holiday in 1894. But the observation actually began a quarter-century earlier in San Francisco.

It was on Feb. 21, 1868. Brass bands blared, flags, banners and torch lights waved high as more than 3000 union members marched proudly through the city's downtown streets, led by shipyard workers and carpenters and men from dozens of other construction trades.

"A jollification," the marchers called their parade – the climax of a three-year campaign of strikes and other pressures that had culminated in the establishment of the eight-hour workday as a legal right in California.

New York unionists staged a similar parade in 1882 that is often erroneously cited as the first Labor Day parade, even though it occurred 14 years after the march in San Francisco.

Honors for holding the first official Labor Day are usually granted the state of Oregon, which proclaimed a Labor Day holiday in 1887 – seven years before the Federal Government got around to proclaiming the holiday that is now observed nationwide.

But Oregon's move came nearly a year after Gov. George Stoneman of California issued a proclamation setting aside May 11, 1886, as a legal holiday to honor a new organization of California unions – the year-old Iron Trades Council.

That, said renowned labor historian Ira. B. Cross of the University of California, was "the first legalized Labor Day in the United States

San Francisco also played a major role in that celebration of 1886. The city was the scene of the chief event – a march down Market Street by more than 10,000 men and women from some 40 unions, led by the uniformed rank-and-file of the Coast Seamen's Union. Gov. Stoneman and his entire staff marched right along with them

The process was seven miles long, took more than two hours to pass any given point, and generated enthusiasm that the San Francisco Examiner said was "entirely unprecedented – even in political campaigns."

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

 

Comments

I always thought that Labor Day was a fast one pulled by capitalists to divert attention and energy from the traditional, and very left, May 1st. Am I wrong?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 02, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

I always thought that Labor Day was a fast one pulled by capitalists to divert attention and energy from the traditional, and very left, May 1st. Am I wrong?

Posted by Guest on Sep. 02, 2012 @ 6:41 pm