The First Labor Day

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Here's something you might not realize about Labor Day. Although it has been a national holiday for 118 years, it actually was first observed as a holiday a quarter-century earlier -- right here in San Francisco.

That was on February 21, 1868. Brass bands blared. Flags, banners and torchlights waved high, as more that 3,000 union members marched proudly through the city's downtown, led by shipyard workers and carpenters and men from dozens of other construction trades.

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

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

Honors for observing the first official Labor Day usually go to the state of Oregon, which proclaimed a Labor Day holiday in 1887.


But Oregon's move came nearly a year after Governor 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 was the first legalized Labor Day anywhere.

San Francisco also played a major role in the celebration of 1886. The city hosted 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. Governor Stoneman and his entire staff marched right along with them.

The procession 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."

It's unlikely that today's unions could mount such a demonstration, given the decline in their numbers and influence and, ironically, given labor's success in helping make Labor Day mainly a day of rest and recreation.

With a Perspective, this is Dick Meister.

Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area labor and political journalist.