American Labor Museum Director Discusses the History of Labor Day

Today is Labor Day, which often gets commemorated with trips to the beach, the mall or barbecues. But the holiday is much more than that. It has a long history with strong ties to New Jersey. American Labor Museum Executive Director Angelica Santomauro sat down with NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor to discuss the holiday and how it came to be.

Labor Day started Sept. 5, 1882 with 30,000 factory workers marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Santomauro explained that two men were involved in the New York City Central Labor Council — Peter McGuire and Matthew Maguire. Maguire was from Paterson. Santomaruo said both men receive credit for the march.

After other states throughout the country got involved in the movement with their own marches, President Grover Cleveland — who was also from New Jersey — signed legislation in 1894 declaring the first Monday in September as the official day to celebrating working people, Santomauro said.

She said that Labor Day came during a time in American history when more people were organizing in unions and wanted to be recognized for the final products they were producing. “They wanted people to appreciate the hard work and the effort that they put into making products that people were enjoying,” she said.

While Labor Day is more of a celebratory day, Santomauro said “they were also bringing recognition to the fact that they wanted an eight-hour day — eight hours for work, eight hours for play, eight hours for what you will.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Paterson silk strike. Santomauro explained that Paterson had 298 silk mills and made up 50 percent of the silk production for the country. In 1913, 25,000 silk mill workers walked out, closing down the silk industry for nearly six months. According to Santomauro, the cause of the strike was the so-called “speed up system,” which meant if there were two workers who each worked two looms, one worker would be required to use four looms and the other would lose his or her job.

“So the weavers were not walking out necessarily in protest that were going to be working four looms. They were walking out in protest because their brothers and sisters were losing their jobs. Because there was real solidarity back at that time in our history, which I hope comes back and may be coming back as we see it now,” Santomauro said.

Some issues from the past still endure, including the fight to increase the minimum wage. Santomauro said increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour would give people a better chance of having a living wage and being able to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.

“I actually volunteer at a homeless shelter and we have another class in our society. It’s the working poor. There are so many people who have to come to that shelter to receive food because they’re part time, they’re making the minimum wage and they just don’t have enough money to put food on the table and roof over their head,” Santomauro said.

The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has its roots in New Jersey. Santomauro said Samuel Gompers founded the AFL, which represented skilled workers. Then there was a call for the organization to also include unskilled workers during a convention in Atlantic City in 1935. The AFL did not agree to that, which caused fighting.

“The president of the mine workers went out and actually had a fist fight with another gentleman by the name of John Hutchinson and punched him. And they say it was the punch heard round the labor movement. And the CIO was born in 1935 in Atlantic City, N.J. — the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which is comprised of unskilled workers and then eventually joined in and re-merged with the AFL in 1961. The last state in the country was New Jersey to merge with the AF of L,” Santomauro explained.

The American Labor Museum is housed at the Botto House National Landmark in Haledon. Santomauro said it was the meeting place for 25,000 silk mine workers during the Paterson silk strike in 1913. Now it is a learning center.

“We have restored period rooms on the first floor of the house so people can see how immigrants lived in the early part of the 20th century. On the second floor, we’ve opened it up in a more modern setting to accommodate changing exhibits. And we’re currently featuring the exhibit on the 1913 Paterson silk strike. We also have a little museum store,” she said.

The museum will be honoring the descendants of the Paterson silk strikers Sept. 7. “We have 10 families who will be coming. They total about 100 people. And we have unions coming from all over. And we will be commemorating Labor Day, the strike, as well as the 30th anniversary of the American Labor Museum,” Santomauro said.

Santomauro said museum staff are proud of the site and what it accomplishes. “Laurel Brennan, who’s the secretary/treasurer of the AFL-CIO right here in our state of New Jersey has called the museum ‘labor schoolhouse’ and we’re very proud of that title because we do a lot of teaching and many cultural programs and special events,” she said.