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P. J. McGuire
Updated On: Nov 12, 2017

P. J. McGuire - Founder of Labor Day and the UBC

PJ McGuire

Early Struggle for Survival

McGuire's parents were typical of the throngs of Europeans arriving on America's shores. His mother, Catherine Hand O'Riley, survived the tragic loss of her first husband and six of their eight children in Ireland. Ready to start over in the New World, she met John J. McGuire, another young Irish immigrant, in the Lower East Side of New York City. Peter, the first child of their family of 5, was born on July 6, 1852.

McGuire once described the neighborhood of his youth as a "living grave." The dreams that carried immigrants across the Atlantic quickly came up against the harsh realities of tenement life. Six families often crowded into buildings meant for single-family use. The least fortunate huddled in dank cellars, hidden from the sun and filled with garbage. The crush of people strained the minimal sanitary facilities of the houses, and, inevitably, life spilled into the streets and alleys.

The McGuire family struggled to survive. Young Peter never had the luxury of a carefree childhood. When his father enlisted in the Union Army in 1863, the 11-year-old boy became the family's primary breadwinner. Peter left his local parish school to take on a variety of jobs: hawking papers, shining shoes, and cleaning stores. Eventually he settled into a regular job as an errand boy at Lord and Taylor's department store.

McGuire's formal education had ended, but his natural curiosity and hunger for knowledge persisted. From his father, a full-time porter and a part-time instructor in the Celtic language, he learned about the customs of his parents' homeland. From his friends and neighbors, he absorbed the crafts, folklore, and languages of the rich mixture of cultures in the city's 17th Ward. His fluency in German, picked up in the street-corner marbles games, helped him in later organizing campaigns among German-American carpenters and cabinetmakers.

McGuire attended courses and lectures at the Cooper Union, a center for continuing education and a regular meeting place for radical and reform movements. He enjoyed the excitement of the nightly meetings and impassioned speeches on the social issues of the day. The Cooper Union was a vital place; many of the labor leaders of the era got their first taste of economics, labor theories, and public speaking at Peter Cooper's school. McGuire was a member of the Rising Star Debating Society. It was there that he met another foreign-born student who was to work with him in founding the American Federation of Labor-Samuel Gompers.

McGuire decided to learn a trade. At the age of 17, he started his apprenticeship in the Haines Piano Shop. The long hours, low wages, and difficult working conditions of his working days reinforced the teaching he received at night. The importance of labor organization was a message that the gangly teenager took to heart.

His first experience of practical activism came in 1872. McGuire marched alongside the one hundred thousand workers who struck for the eight-hour day in the spring of that year. Years later, McGuire remarked that the events of 1872 convinced him of the value of a militant labor movement.

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Taking Action

It did not take long for the young piano-maker to translate his beliefs into action. The following year, he led a fight against a wage reduction at his piano shop. Despite a strong show of unity, the workers at Haines' lost. Harassed for his leading role in the strike, McGuire left to find work at a nearby finish shop. By now, he was a skilled journeyman, confident of his ability to hold down a job. Unfortunately, times were changing. For McGuire and millions of other workers, a willingness to work would make little difference in the dark days ahead.

St. Paul March

American industry expanded dramatically in the years after the Civil War. Industrial production rose by nearly 47% between 1865 and 1870. The unprecedented boom in railroads, building and manufacturing industries raised hopes of better times for all. But the economic bubble burst in 1873. For the next six years, workers suffered to an extent that was not matched until the Great Depression of the 1930's. Production ground to a standstill as unemployment skyrocketed. In December, McGuire got the bad news. He became one more number on the rolls of the tens of thousands of unemployed workers in New York City.

McGuire's exposure to the political clubs and organizations had prepared him to respond to adversity. When organizations of the unemployed sprang up in the many cities, he joined the New York committee. Every night McGuire spoke on soap boxes in the vacant lots of his neighborhood, urging his fellow citizens to demand work or relief. His forceful and dynamic speaking style drew crowds and attention. His reputation was still limited to his ward until he was elected to the Committee of Safety, the umbrella organization that coordinated demonstrations for public relief in the winter of 1873-74. His role as a city-wide spokesman for the unemployed catapulted him out of obscurity and led the proper New York Times to brand him as a "disturber of the public peace."

City officials ignored the demands for public relief and rent suspensions. The business community pretended the growing army of marchers was unrepresentative. The Times insisted that "these agitators will find no support among the great masses of the laboring classes" and blames the activities on a "foreign class" of workmen.

But desperation mounted as the gloom of winter set in. Rallies swelled in size and became more frequent. McGuire spoke daily at meetings and churned out handbills and flyers between demonstrations. The city, no longer able to dismiss the movement, changed strategy. As part of a campaign to discredit the Committee of Safety, police officials arranged for John McGuire to issue a public denunciation of his notorious son's "radical and atheistic" behavior. The timing of the father's statement was set to cause the greatest possible embarrassment for the son. In the midst of sensitive negotiations over the right to a parade permit, a Police Commissioner informed McGuire of his father's comments, made on the steps of their parish church. The 21-year-old leader burst into tears and had to be helped from the room. As Samuel Gompers wrote in his autobiography: "McGuire was tender-hearted and the treatment hurt, but he stood by the cause."

McGuire continued his work, leading up to the famous Tompkins Square rally of January 13, 1874. This demonstration occupies and important place in the pages of American labor history. The battle for workers' rights has often met stiff resistance, and the park in Tompkins Square will always be remembered as the site of a violent attack on the young labor movement.

"Riot Quelled" screamed the headline of the New York Daily Tribune the following day, but as McGuire circulated among the crowd on that cold winter's Tuesday morning, he had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. Ten thousand demonstrators quietly waited for the speeches to begin. Without warning, police, on horse and foot, charged into the crowd with clubs flying. Panic-stricken, the ralliers fled, tumbling over one another to avoid the crack of the nightstick. From 11 a.m. Until dusk, the Lower East Side was turned into a sea of chaos. Anyone on the streets was liable to feel, in the words of a Tribune reporter, the "wholesale influence" of the officers' clubs. By day's end, 35 had been arrested, and dozens more were injured.

The police action worked, up to a point. The blood spilled in and around Tompkins Square slowed the pace of organizing, but it also had the unintended effect of galvanizing a number of young activists into a life of labor organizing. Though the unemployed councils faded with the arrival of spring, one of their leaders, P.J. McGuire, was just beginning a new career.

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Hopping Freights to Organize

For the rest of the decade, McGuire divided his time between organizing and working in the trade. He worked in finish shops and piano factories, mostly to finance his political life. He spoke up and down the East Coast, throughout the Midwest and the South. He helped form the socialist Workingmens' Party and travelled on its behalf. The number of his speaking engagements was as extensive as his funds were limited. On a tour of New England in 1877, McGuire walked form city to city enrolling hundreds of new members in the party with each speech. When his feet gave out, he hopped freights. During one six-week stretch, he is said to have made 107 speeches, usually to audiences of several thousand.

McGuire's rich voice and biting wit rarely failed to move audiences. Since the American labor and socialist movements of that time were filled with foreign-language speaking members, a good English-speaking orator was highly prized. McGuire spoke plainly and directly to building trades workers, and voiced their desire for dignity.

Audiences appreciated the gifted speaker. A Cincinnati editor wrote: "It is worth a long summer day's march to hear McGuire. Sharp, incisive, trenchant, he cleaves asunder, dividing the bones and the marrow. WE do not remember having had our spirit so completely refreshed." A member of the Workingmen's Party, lamenting McGuire's hectic schedule, asked: "Can't you divide McGuire, make two of him, keep one and send the other here?" Even his opponents respected his talents. One unfriendly observer grumbled about McGuire's ability to "vigorously say nothing for two hours and nevertheless hold his audiences spellbound."

McGuire's speeches challenged his listeners to question the economic system that produced boom-and-bust business cycles, an insecure, underpaid labor force, and wretched working conditions. McGuire warned that workers were condemned to harsh and trying lives as long as the capitalist's desire for profits determined economic and political choices. He urged independent political action and the creation of a working-class party to speak in the name of labor. Always ready to practice what he preached, McGuire managed campaigns for local and state offices in Connecticut, and received over 9,000 votes in a Cincinnati election , despite being there for only six weeks.

Ever restless and on the move, McGuire and his family relocated to St. Louis. The Workingmen's Party had mobilized St. Louis workers during the great railroad strike of 1877, and McGuire imagined the city would be fertile ground for organizing. He was not disappointed. Representing the local Trades and Labor Assembly, he lobbied the Missouri State Legislature for bills on mine ventilation and child labor. In 1879, he convinced the legislators to establish a State Bureau of Labor Statistics, and was subsequently appointed Deputy Commissioner. McGuire had wasted little time in making a name for himself. As the St. Louis Republican remarked in an obvious understatement: "All workingmen know McGuire."

But McGuire was not cut out for the life of a state appointee. He soon grew impatient with the Bureau's limited authority. Conflict with his supervisor heightened his dissatisfaction with watching labor struggles from a distance. After six months he quit and returned to the trade-to promote trade unionism and fight for the eight-hour day.

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Old System Breaking Down

McGuire could see that the trade was changing. Economic developments in the post-Civil War era affected the world of the carpenter. Up until that time, a carpenter's life followed a predictable course. Beginning as an apprentice, the typical carpenter could expect to follow the steps of his employers to journeyman and master carpenter status. Masters, journeymen, and apprentices worked together on projects, divided only by the skill levels that came with age and experience. As the building industry grew, however, the individual master could not keep up with the increased demands of capital and labor. In some cases, speculators from outside the trade stepped in; in others, masters put down their tools and became full-time contractors.

The old system was breaking down. Contractors now coordinated and supervised construction, while the journeymen and apprentices wielded the hammers and saws. By the 1880's, the number of large building employers multiplied, threatening the average carpenter's drams of becoming and independent master.

The new breed of employers cared little for the quality of building or the pride of the craftsman. "Jerry" builders and "botch" work became the order of the day as the lure of great profits led contractors to drive their workers harder and harder. J.W. Brown, a carpenter from Connecticut, recalled times of old when the employer "felt himself under a moral obligation" to the working carpenter and his steady employment. Under the new arrangements, according to Brown, the carpenter had become "accustomed to look upon himself not only as a wage worker for life, but as an appendage to a monstrous machine for the production and distribution of wealth."

McGuire recognized the effects of this new way of working. The carpenter's position worsened as building employers introduced modern business methods to construction, turning craftsmen into "modern" workers. McGuire described a common situation in which carpenters "who have worked for employers twenty to thirty years now have as many as twenty or thirty employers in a year."

McGuire knew the life of the carpenter firsthand. Over the years, he had added the skill of the outside carpenter to his knowledge of the trade. His insights and observations about the trade were based on experiences on the job. In January of 1881, he wrote a letter to a friend describing his current job, building a self-supporting roof 120 feet in the air in "arctic weather." Work was hard to come by and he did not complain: "I keep the job because it will last until summer and it pays $2.50 per day of 9 hours."


He also saw developments in the trade through the eyes of an experience organizer. He believed that workers could only combat powerlessness through organization. If the trade of the carpenter was under attack, there was only one thing to do-protect and defend the trade through the collective strength of the workers. In May of 1881, McGuire issued a stirring call for action:

"For years the carpenters of the whole country have been disorganized and without any common understanding. The 300,000 men of the trade have been at the mercy of a few thousand contractors and boss builders. . . In the present age there is no hope for workingmen outside of organization. Without a trades union, the workman meets the employer at a great disadvantage. The capitalist has the advantage of past accumulations; the laborer, unassisted by combination, has not."

It was logical the McGuire should deliver the call for a national union. His leadership in the Workingmen's Party, the St. Louis Trades Assembly, and in a successful strike of St. Louis carpenters in 1881, made him the country's best known organizer of carpenters, though he was still just 29.

Representative from 11 cities answered his invitation to the Chicago convention. Four days of heated discussion produced a constitution and a structure. The delegates disagreed on a number of issues, but there was no disagreement on the new union's leader. P.J. McGuire was unanimously elected to the post of General Secretary.

The UBC's early years were difficult. The union grew slowly, from a membership of 2,042 in 1881 to %,789 in 1885. Some cities were well organized, while others remained entirely non-union. At the national level, McGuire spent 18 hours a day speaking, writing, and organizing to keep the organization afloat. The national office followed him-to St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia-as he moved around, responding to crisis after crisis. He rarely collected his $20 weekly salary, and if he did, it immediately went towards union expenses.

In early 1882, McGuire and the union were penniless. The March issue of the Carpenter, the official monthly, was printed thanks to a friend's $30 loan. McGuire did not mind personal poverty, but he dreaded the collapse of the union. Disheartened by the financial problems, he wrote to Gabriel Edmonston, first General President, for advice and support:

"We must never think of giving up the Carpenter! Rather give up anything but that. I would sell my sewing machine and mortgage everything I have before that paper goes down. It is our life-our hope-our only power to hold the unions true to each other. I will work at the trade, give up my salary, and kill myself at night to keep things going, if necessary to keep up our paper."

Events in the larger labor movement would influence the fate of the UBC. Though growth seemed painfully slow, American labor was beginning to flex its muscles. The railroad strike of 1877 had been crushed, but the seeds of organization had been planted. In the early 1880's, local unions blossomed in dozens of trades, from small specialty shops to giant industrial concerns. The desire for better working conditions was an unstoppable force.

Sensing the stirring of a new labor militancy, UBC leaders decided the time was ripe for a national demonstration of American workers. In 1884, Gabriel Edmonston proposed a general strike for the eight-hour day to take place on May 1, 1886. At the time, Edmonston and McGuire hoped the work stoppage might be a successful symbolic action. Neither man could have anticipated the response that emerged one and a half years later.

Historians have labeled 1886 as "the year of the great uprising of labor." Never before had so many American workers acted in unison for a common goal 340,000 workers demonstrated for shorter house in cities across the map. AS the Wisconsin Commissioner of Labor put it: "the agitation permeated our entire social atmosphere. . . . It was the topic of conversation in the shop, on the street, at the family table, at the bar, in the counting rooms, and the subject of numerous able sermons from the pulpit."

Workers from every industry participated, but building tradesmen were the central force. UBC locals led the marching columns in every city, inspiring others with their determination. And, not surprisingly, the Brotherhood's top officer was one of the major national spokesmen for the May strikers. McGuire criss-crossed the country calling for reduced hours to countless audiences. His involvement was so complete that he had to temporarily suspend the regular business of the union.

McGuire's and Edmonston's proposal paid handsome dividends. Union carpenters won higher wages and/or decreased hours in 53 cities. The successes of the union and the dynamic character of its leader attracted thousands of unorganized carpenters. By the end of the summer of 1886, the Brotherhood had swelled to 21,423 members. Four years later, membership topped 50,000 and McGuire reported that the UBC was "now the largest and most powerful organization, numerically, of any special trade in the whole civilized world."

The eight-hour strikes of 1886 and 1890 transformed the struggling Carpenters' Union into a flourishing organization. Through most of the 1890's, the annual budget was in six figures. In addition to his skill as an organizer, McGuire was increasingly recognized as an astute and capable executive. He was amused by his new-found respectability and fame, once commenting on the change from the past when "labor agitators were a much despised class, often without a dinner or a meal. Now they have mayors and governors to welcome them when assembled in convention."

McGuire was justifiably proud of the union's stability and its capacity to offer a full range of benefits to members, but he insisted that the union had a broader purpose.

"We should not lose sight of our character as a trade union, and sink ourselves into a mere benevolent society or insurance company. . . . We must elevate the craft, protect its interests, advance wages, reduce the hours of labor, spread correct economic doctrines and cultivate a spirit of fraternity among the working people regardless of creed, color, nationality or politics. These principles are the foundation principles of our organization."

The union was safely established. There was no longer a question of survival, but rather of identity-that is, what kind of union would the UBC be. Coming from the national leader, McGuire's beliefs served as the union's guideposts. He set ambitious goals for the Brotherhood. Meeting those goals required applying certain cardinal principles of unionism.

McGuire believed that a union's strength flowed from its members' participation. Involvement demanded information, and he used the monthly to transmit internal union news. He also linked the well-being of carpenters to the fate of all other workers. Just as the carpenter lost his independence, the Industrial Revolution turned native and immigrant workers into a mechanized factor-based workforce. Similar problems called for united actions. In 1890, McGuire said: "We are not a narrow, selfish trade organization, entirely for ourselves. We have been and always will be ready to do our share in the general labor movement, whether it be to help the poorest or the highest-paid worker."

Solidarity meant nothing to McGuire unless it was based in organization. He devoted most of his time away from the Brotherhood to the national labor formations, the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. Each contained elements of McGuire's vision of a successfully united body of American workers.

The Knights mirrored a country at the crossroads. On the one hand, they yearned for the days before industrialization when divisions between workers and employers were less rigid. As a result, they favored organization of all "producers," not just workers, and opposed affiliation of strict trade union lines or class-oriented actions such as strikes. McGuire rejected this backward-looking view, but he endorsed much of the Knights of Labor program-their willingness to organize across race and sex lines and their insistence on the educational component of labor organization. Though he tried and failed to redirect the Knights from their anti-union stance, he remained a member until the Knights faded in the 1890's.

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National Federation Emerges

The Knight's dismissal of trade unionism prompted members of the largest unions (Carpenters, Cigarmakers, and Printers) to demand better national representation. Under the direction of McGuire and Samuel Gompers, leader of the Cigarmakers, the American Federation of Labor emerged as the national arm of the trade unionists. The two organizations competed for several years until the decline of the Knights insured the AFL's supremacy.

Though relations were tense between many leaders of the two societies, McGuire tried mightily to bring them together. Despite being one of the highest officers in the AFL, he supported the Knights' continuing efforts to organize the unorganized. He believed both groups could work in harmony. Workers must be organized, McGuire argued. Their particular affiliations were a secondary matter. "What difference does it make to the workingman whether he is a Knight of Labor, a trade unionist or a member of the Brotherhood of United Labor, the interests of all are the same."

McGuire applied his message of solidarity to workers covered by the Brotherhood's jurisdiction. He backed the Amalgamated Wood Workers International Union's campaign to organize industrial woodworkers even though the UBC constitution theoretically included those mill hands. His priority was more and better organization. McGuire greeted the development of building trades councils in many cities as another step on the road to the complete representation of all workers. National unions, district councils, central labor bodies all built the movement. "They are all wrapped up in each other's welfare. When one is attacked all are alike ready to rush to the rescue."

McGuire also believed firmly in the importance of education in the labor movement. Unions should act, said McGuire, as "primary schools for industrial thought." He wanted the UBC to be a model for all trade unions; he wanted the locals to be arenas of discussion, debate, and education so that they could "prepare [workers] for changes to come."

In an era when great fortunes were flaunted alongside extreme poverty, McGuire warned that social tensions were approaching a breaking point. Only and educated and active working class could make its needs known. He urged the local unions to set up libraries, train members in the art of public speaking, and consider issues of politics and economics. ON the national level, mcGuire used the Carpenter to examine current controversies, political theories, international developments, and the role of labor in society.

Education led to social involvement and McGuire endorsed political action by labor. Ultimately, he hoped the labor movement would lead the American people to the "co-operative commonwealth," a society free of the bitter conflicts between social classes. But his dreams were firmly grounded in reality. He had studied the various reform philosophies-Populism, Socialism, Nationalism, the Single-Tax, Co-operation, and Christian Socialism-and had abandoned hope of finding a single source of salvation

The labor movement, and its immediate problems, came first and foremost. Though he encouraged political activism, he warned impatient labor organizers not to neglect their unions. A political movement for workers was a hollow shell without the organizational backing of the trade unions. A steadily advancing labor movement was the only certain basis to further workers' interests.

The visionary goals and the bread-and-butter demands were part and parcel of the same union. The educational and cultural aspects of the Brotherhood rested on the day-to-day security of the members. McGuire's union fought for improved working conditions, represented the workers in their grievances, and provided benefits for crises of sickness and death at home.

Union carpenters won impressive gains during McGuire's reign. The average wage in 1881 was $2 a day. Twenty years later, it had doubled, and was as high as $5 in the larger cities. By 1902, UBC carpenters worked eight-hour days in nearly 500 cities, at a time when ten- and twelve-hour days were still common in many industries.

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The Machinery Wears Out

Success never comes without a cost, as McGuire was learning. The years of his grinding schedule were finally taking their toll. By the turn of the century, his body was wracked with disease. Infirmity crept up on him with little respect for his actual age. He was struggling to keep up with his responsibilities in the UBC and the AFL.

Some of the other leaders who disagreed with his policies of reform and jurisdictional cooperation used his condition to question his ability to carry out the duties of General Secretary. McGuire was reluctant to leave the office that meant so much to him. But after months of confusion, charges and counter-charges, the handwriting was on the wall.

McGuire resigned at the 1902 UBC convention in Atlanta. Looking considerably older than his 50 years, the frail leader told the delegates he could not and would not continue. "A man wears out like a piece of machinery," he said, and he offered the convention his final words of advice: "United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, keep together; no split, no division, no disorganization . . . Take means and care to preserve the organization."

McGuire retired to his home in Camden, New Jersey. For all his years of service to the labor movement, he was still a poor man. He lived a quiet life with his family, punctuated by occasional visits with old friends.

American labor had entered a new century, but McGuire was to see few of its promises. Four years after his resignation, on February 18, 1906, Peter J. McGuire died. Even in his final moments, the perpetual organizer would not be stilled. According to his daughter, "he kept talking about Local 22 in California. He kept saying he had to get there, that the men were in trouble."

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