In Detroit the earliest versions of a “holiday for labor” can be traced back to before the Civil War, when joining labor unions and agitating could be dangerous for a man’s continued employment.
The first labor union in the city was founded by printers in the 1830s. At a meeting on March 23, 1839, The Detroit Typographical Society declared:
“Resolved: That in our opinion our numbers are now sufficient to warrant such a union among us.
“Resolved: We have organized ourselves into a society… for the purpose of maintaining the honor and welfare of our craft, the securing of fair remuneration for our labor, and for the moral and social improvements of its members.”
More like an association of printing craftsmen, it was succeeded by the Detroit Typographical Union No. 18, formed in 1853. It functions to this day, and claims to be the oldest union in the city.
By the 1860s, there was already a tradition of unions marching in holiday parades, although many early members didn’t show up for marches for fear of losing their jobs. And those who did march often found themselves in the midst of quarrels and fights about union leadership, judging from reports of the time. What would become the annual Labor Day march and picnic changed over the years as Detroit’s industrial strength expanded, masses of European immigrants sought work, left-wing politics got radical and tiny craft unions evolved to international powerhouses.
The earliest Labor Days in Detroit
The first nationally famous labor figure in Detroit appeared during the Civil War. He was Richard F. Trevellick, born in England, who came to Detroit in 1862 at age 32, finding work as a ship’s carpenter and caulker at Oliver Newbury’s dry dock ship yards on the Detroit River. “Uncle Dick,” as he was fondly called, was a brilliant orator and was elected president of the Carpenters and Caulkers’ International Union.
He founded the first industrial union, formed of multiple craft unions in Detroit, called the Detroit Trades Assembly. The group had 5,000 members by 1864.
From the start, parades, rallies and picnics were an important function and tool of organized labor for displaying strength, making demands and maintaining harmony. In 1864 the Detroit Trades Assembly held its first gatherings at Campus Martius, with Richard Trevellick the featured speaker. One union rally attendee described Trevellick after one of his speeches as a “second Jesus Christ.”
Many people felt a disdain and dislike of “inferior” laborers, particularly unskilled workers, who were frequently foreign or black; many times this prejudice verged toward hostility. Politicians ignored them. In addition, large gatherings of workers were viewed with trepidation. In big cities, union leaders’ strike threats and a reputation for violence, paired with rowdy brawling and drunkenness at union rallies, led to scenes of mounted police breaking up mobs with clubs.
But not every gathering of working men had to end badly. The Detroit Free Press noted after one Trade Assembly event that “not less than three to four thousand people were present and not a harsh word or unseemly interruption marred the proceedings… . The addresses were listened to with devout attention throughout … .”
The Detroit Trade Assembly’s labor parades in 1865 formed a part of established parades and gatherings on national holidays, such as the Fourth of July or Washington’s birthday. The unions gathered at Campus Martius, each carrying a banner with a name and symbol of their occupation. Many wore all white with matched hats or aprons. The names of their unions sound a bit quaint today: blacksmiths, iron molders, ship carpenters, caulkers, joiners, coopers, cigar packers, tailors, broommakers, stovemounters, bricklayers, shoemakers, painters, bakers, tinsmiths, cabinet makers, and saddle, trunk and harness makers.
In all about 9,000 people were involved and ended up having parties “gypsy-style” in the Bella Hubbard Grove at Vinewood and 25th Street, with shuttle trips to Belle Isle and Grosse Ile and moonlight excursions to Lake Erie on the ship T.F. Park.
The Knights of Labor
Like many other unions, the Detroit Trades Assembly hit rough waters during the Panic of 1873 and the continued depression of the 1870s, and it finally broke up. However, there was little doubt that labor was in ascendance. A labor newspaper in Detroit predicted: “Labor is awaking from its long slumber. The rising giant is just now stretching and … will make its strength felt in every phase of American life.”
Another Detroit figure emerged who would become a nationally known labor agitator and anarchist, Joseph A. Labadie. (Labadie was an avid collector of political paraphernalia and in 1911 donated his collection to the University of Michigan Library. Today the Joseph A. Labadie Collection is the oldest research collection of radical history in the United States.)
Jo Labadie was born in 1850 in Paw Paw, Mich. He had virtually no schooling, but became a writer, a poet and an active supporter of the Socialist Labor Party. He was key in bringing a new national labor union into Detroit: The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, which was founded by garment workers in 1869 in Pennsylvania.
In October 1878 Charles Litchman, “grand scribe” of the Knights of Labor, traveled to the emerging labor center of Detroit and selected Labadie to form the first cell of the union in Michigan. The group preferred to keep its identity obscured, for its mission to organize all laborers into a secret federation was arousing intense hostility from business leaders. Handsome, dapper, friendly, and always ready with a speech, Labadie was an ideal choice for the Knights, whose ideals of brotherhood and justice were at one with Labadie’s values.
Through Labadie’s energizing zeal the Knights of Labor grew to be a significant force in Michigan. Although he strongly opposed the policy of secrecy, as well as the mystical ceremonies, Labadie named his first group "The Washington Literary Society." By 1887, his Detroit District Assembly No. 50 numbered some 10,000 workers of both sexes and many nationalities, more than a third of the local work force.
Welcoming workers of all kinds
The Knights believed in inclusiveness, which gave memberships to miners, farmers, teachers and many more. For the first time African-Americans were welcomed to the union and at the Knights’ peak of power they counted 60,000 black members (although the Knights fought hard to exclude Asians, fearing they would “steal” American jobs and work for next to nothing).
This philosophy of wide-ranging inclusion created problems with many members, who felt “skilled” labor was socially higher and more important than “unskilled” labor, and that certain jobs, like machinists or carpenters, deserved more attention and better wages than, say, dock workers.
There were also left-wing radical political factions in the Knights which attracted Jo Labadie and others.
In August of 1884 the Knights of Labor held a massive picnic and day of baseball at Recreation Park at Brady and Brush Streets (where Children's Hospital of Michigan now stands) with athletic contests of all kinds. “In the evening,” the Detroit Free Press promised, “there will be electric lights … and a grand march and dancing on the green with a prize for the lady that survives the waltz.”
Knights’ parades were at night, beginning at 8 p.m. at Woodward and Park Street, encircling Grand Circus Park, then heading on toward Jefferson Avenue. Each man carried a colored Chinese lantern. As the Detroit Journal reported in 1885: “The lanterns were of as many different colors as Joseph’s coat.”
The Knights admitted unskilled laborers, who, the Journal wrote, “were mostly Polish, German, and Irish day laborers who marched raggedly with a heavy, shambling gate that told of years of unremitting toil with the hoe and spade.”
In the rear of the parade came the contingent of the Socialist Labor Party. “The large number of goatees and pointed mustaches gave it a sort of ‘imported direct from Paris’ appearance,” the Journal wrote. “The mottos on the transparencies [banners] in this section of the parade vigorously denounced rent, interest, land monopolies and similar institutions of society.”
Two workers' holidays in Detroit
By the 1880s there were two workers’ holidays, Labor Day and the international and more politically incendiary May Day. May Day demonstrations were usually dominated by European immigrants, as the unemployed used the opportunity to vent their anger, and European unions and socialist groups adopted it as an occasion to display their strength.
New labor organizations sprang up and old ones expanded in a wave of militancy and activism that peaked in 1886, when union membership reached a new high: the Knights of Labor boasted 700,000 members.
At that time, almost everyone worked at least 10 hours a day and, for many, 12 hours. Huge strikes for eight-hour work days shook the nation, and independent labor political parties surfaced in community after community. Many of the strikes and parades drew thousands and ended in violence.
From the 1880s through the 1900s, anarchists and socialists were part of Labor Day parades in Detroit and other cities. As some unions tried to dissociate with the left-wing militant political groups, some left-wingers would try to sneak into the parades as they marched. The Detroit Evening Journal in 1885 reported that the Pinkerton Agency sent 13 detectives to secretly “infiltrate” the parade and cause problems for left-wing agitators.
A May Day rally in 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square became a riot in which a dynamite bomb and gunfire killed seven policemen and four workers, and injured many others. Eight anarchists were convicted, on flimsy evidence, of conspiring to commit the violence.
In Detroit, 800 men met in Germania Hall to hear speeches by the Socialist Labor Party and condemn the convictions in Chicago. Samuel Goldwater, an anarchist and city alderman, addressed the angry crowd in the hall:
“I have taken part in this great movement both as a socialist and an anarchist. I have never yet possessed so much as a revolver. But I say if these men hang, 100,000 men will arise to take their places.”
In 1887, four of the anarchists were hanged. Labadie visited them in jail twice just a few weeks before their executions, shaking hands with each of them through the bars of their cells.
Americans turn away from May Day
In the years that followed, May Day became an occasion for protesting the arrests of socialists, anarchists and unionists following the Haymarket riot. Detroit’s militants kept a low profile, preferring to celebrate in Arbeiter Hall or Turner Hall. The halls were bedecked in red flags and bunting with families attending. The speeches were commonly in German since nine-tenths of the attendees were German, according to the Free Press.
Jo Labadie was a longtime defendant of the Haymarket anarchists and lamented that he and the anarchist movement were misrepresented by the newspapers. Nonviolent Quakers were the closest in philosophy to anarchists, he said. However, banners in Arbeiter Hall in 1891 tended to contradict that point: “In case you attack us with Gatling Guns, We shall dynamite you.”
By that time, Americans were turning away from May Day, even as its popularity grew in Europe. Only hard-core socialists still held May Day demonstrations in Grand Circus Park, usually ending in violent clashes with the police.
Detroit labor unions abandoned radical politics. Due to internal quarreling, the Knights of Labor disbanded and a new, practical labor union focusing exclusively on wages and working conditions was founded in 1886 by cigar maker Samuel Gompers: the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Reflecting the changes in organized labor, Labor Day parades became less confrontational, emphasizing patriotism, workers’ rights and union pride. The red flags, radical speakers and international slogans so common earlier were relegated to the rear of the parade, and eventually were banned entirely. The deradicalization of Labor Day made it easier for the union movement to win its designation as a national holiday in 1894 and to force businesses to shut for the day.
“The stars and stripes were the only flag carried in the parade, significant of the fact that it was a parade of trades union people, pure and patriotic, to the exclusion of all radical elements,” the Detroit Free Press reported on Sept. 7, 1897.
Wild for Labor Day
As the 20th century neared, enthusiasm for the Labor Day parade continued to grow. The parade and picnics were planned by the elected officers of the Trades and Labor Council. Planning committees met for months to discuss whether to have the picnic on Belle Isle, the Polo Grounds or Recreation Park. This very success, though, lessened the focus of the day on organized labor, as more and more non-unionists were given the day off.
The parade was divided into seven divisions with five or more unions in six and business floats promoting real estate or products in the last section. It was customary to award a place of honor at the head the parade to a union currently on strike; in 1899 it was Theatrical Workers Union, No. 14. Each marching union hired its own marching band, some coming in from New York or farther. Many companies such as Pingree & Smith shoes or Hudson’s department store had their own bands that marched with unions.
“Downtown streets rapidly filled up with waiting crowds, many members of which stood for hours at some particularly good view point,” the Free Press reported on Sept. 5, 1899. “When the Pingree & Smith band swung onto Woodward Avenue at Park Street the excitement along the avenue grew intense. People jostled each other as best they could to get some sort of view of the parade. It was almost impossible for a man to get his hand into his pocket. Up above, the roofs of all the buildings were lined with people. Every window was crowded. The roof of the Majestic was lined all the way around.”
Floats began to appear in the late 1890s with banners that might denounce Andrew Carnegie, demand an eight-hour workday or condemn convict and child labor. The retail clerks’ union told people to shop early for Christmas and request a unionized clerk when shopping. The ship caulkers’ float held a banner high that read, “We have saved our sailors’ lives by making vessels tight!”
Women workers also participated, such as the Florence Nightingale Association, garment workers and women cigarmakers, all riding in carriages.
Afterward, sports and other events were held at various parks. Some years evening dances were held and frequently the people swarmed out to Belle Isle. Unions challenged each other to baseball, and by as early as 1895 football games were scheduled.
In the 1915 Labor Day parade a new delegation of workers marched for the first time — motion picture operators. They were led down rain-drenched Woodward Avenue by Charlie Chaplin. The Free Press reported “the slippery pavement formed a splendid ballroom for his capers and he sashayed about in real Chaplin style.”
In those years, Labor Day was seen as a welcome holiday for working men and women who labored before the concept of sick days, paid leave, weekends and paid vacations. A Detroit News editorial from Sept. 5, 1927 put it this way:
“In America no man need be apologetic because he works; he needs to explain if he does not. Accordingly, Labor Day is not the peculiar property of some group, but is the holiday which recognizes that this great country of ours with all its glorious achievements, ideals and purposes is a vindication of a whole people’s pride in labor.”
Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, and the forthcoming book “Detroit Food” to be released in early 2014.'i>
Acknowledgement: A special thanks for help from Julie Herrada, curator at the Joseph A. Labadie Collection, Special Collections Library, Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan.