On Sept. 6, 1886, Boston held its first Labor Day parade: Several thousand cigar makers, carpenters, painters, roofers, sheet-metal workers, mechanics, hat makers, newspaper pressmen and other workers started marching at 9:30 a.m. through Park Square and other parts of Boston Proper, ending up on Atlantic Avenue, where they boarded steamers for the ride to Downer Landing in Hingham - sort of the Salem Willows of its day - for a daylong picnic.
As each steamer left, those waiting for the next one cheered the workers and their families. In all some 12,000 people took a harbor cruise down to Hingham that day.
It was all rather festive. Bakers, all dressed in white, carried a giant loaf of "french twist," decorated with ribbons. The Boston Daily Advertiser reported children frolicked and women came out in brightly colored dress. As the Boston Daily Advertiser wrote:
Eager expectancy was upon every face, and the bright ribbons and brilliant costumes of the ladies added much to the enlivening aspect of the streets and squares.
And if Gov. George Robinson declined to review the parade as it passed by the State House, Boston Mayor Hugh O'Brien was more than happy to wave at participants.
But at the heart of the parade - four years after the first, in New York, and eight years before Pres. McKinley made Labor Day an official national holiday - and beyond the colorful banners and onloookers, was a serious struggle over working conditions between the still young labor movement and capital, in particular, how many hours people could be forced to work. The cigar makers - out in large number and among the leaders of the Boston union movement, back when factories still made cigars in Boston - carried banners with slogans like "We prosper with eight hours" and "Be just and fear not."
Earlier in the year, in May, first carpenters and then other unionized construction workers went on strike, demanding their workdays, which included Saturdays, be no more than eight hours long.
At first, the strike seemed to be work - the Globe reported that on the first day of the strike, May 3, smaller contractors quickly sent in agreements to the strike headquarters at a Thomas Paine Hall on Appleton Street with eight-hour provisions. But the Master Builders Association, which represented larger concerns, refused to budge and broke the strike, in part by bringing in workers from outside the city, in part by offering a nine-hour day to one carpenters union, which accepted the offer and which led to the end of the strike. Smaller contractors tore up their eight-hour agreements and went back to requiring ten hours of work a day - with eight hours on Saturday.
That strike, what historian Jama Lazerow calls the 1886 labor uprising came as the Knights of Labor and the Central Labor Union had rapidly increased their membership in Boston from maybe 5,000 members in 1885 to 25,000 by the time of the strike.
The Knights of Labor was the most powerful workers' organization to emerge from this movement. Indeed, John Swinton, the era's foremost labor editor, named Boston the banner city of the KL. By July 1886, the Order had swelled to seventy-nine locals with a membership of nearly 16,000. Moreover, its influence was remarkably widespread. When a Massachusetts militia company was ordered to ride a boycotted railroad, half of the men refused to board, claiming to be Knights members. Militia officers were furious, publicly condemning those men who saw the Knights as a higher authority than the military itself.
The local strike happened at the same time as the Haymarket riot in Chicago that left several strikers and police officers dead.
But for several hours on an overcast September day, workers, their families and supporters had a chance to relax a bit.