It began on May 8, 1882, in New York, on a fresh spring morning. P.J. McGuire stood up and addressed the hall.
“One day in the year should be set aside as a general holiday for the men and women who toil,” he said. His day of choice? The first Monday in September.
Great idea, the crowd responded. Commit it to paper.
McGuire looked around. “Who will be our Jefferson?” he asked, looking down at the bearded, bespectacled man taking notes, a few seats away.
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“Him!” they chorused as a crowd, in acclamation.
He was the natural choice. Newly immigrated, former correspondent with Engels, unsettled colleague of Bakunin, delegate and chair of the first meeting of the International Workers of the World at The Hague by way of Dusseldorf and Milan, where he had unsuccessfully fled from Prussian authorities who had figured out their suspect was hiding and working in a factory under the name of Federico Capestro.
Quite a journey for a man who, an aristocrat by birth, breeding and inclination, held a degree in engineering and spoke seven languages — all of them essential to the readers of his Brooklyn-based newspaper, The Brewer’s Journal, as well as to all those who have since read his American Labor day (with a small “d”) proclamation.
With his pen, and his unshakable belief in the laboring worker, probably chomping on one of his beloved cigars one of his cohorts, probably Sam Gompers, made, he joined in the pantheon of McGuire, Gompers, Green and himself as the acknowledged founders of what we now call Labor Day.
It was not easy. Anything but.
The American labor movement had only recently come out of the closet, where its members had been hiding as “secret societies.” Violent days lie ahead, not the least of them the Haymarket Riots, the scab defying days of the coal fields, and the push for the eight-hour day.
Through it all, Theodor Friedrich Cuno stood firm in his faith that a worker deserves their wages. (You can find those words at Luke 10:7, if you’d like.) And he held to his Lutheran roots.
“Faith is believing something you know isn’t so,” he used to say. Probably in an aloof if not patrician German accent, since there were those who claimed he lacked a sense of humor.
He was my great grandfather, on my mother’s side. In what he gave to us, I pray you see all we have been, all we have failed to be, and all we can become. I pray you see, too, the tale of immigrants, and laborers, and belief in aspiring to be something higher than oneself.
Not the least which includes this Labor Day.
Rev. Sichta’s column. The Rev. Dr. Robert Sichta, Congregational United Church of Christ, 3700 26th St. W., Bradenton, can be reached by calling 941-756-1018 or e-mailing PBKAlpha1@gmail.com. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Herald, written by local clergy members.