Labor Day and Hungarian connections

Canada and the United States celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday in September. It is a public holiday and honors the workers who made these countries prosperous. The long weekend known as Labor Day Weekend is also the unofficial end of summer in North America. Canadians spell it Labour Day.

It is rarely mentioned that Hungarian immigrants played an important role in the organized labor movements of Canada and the United States. In fact, a century ago Hungarian workers were often the most vocal participants in strikes and demonstrations and enthusiastically participated in the union movements in both countries.

These workers arrived as immigrants from the Kingdom of Hungary which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I. Approximately 1.5 to 2 million “Hungarians” arrived to the United States between 1861 and 1913 with the vast majority coming after 1899. It is also suspected that about a third later returned to Europe when they had saved enough money to go back to the Old Country.

Immigrant workers around 1900

The newcomers were poorly educated and got low-paying jobs in mines and steel mills, they built the industrial heartland. They spoke little English and authorities had a hard time to understand the multi-ethnic character of the migration. They often mistakenly assigned national origin to newcomers, while ethnic Magyars and Slovaks made up the largest groups, large numbers of ethnic Croats, Slovenes, Germans, and Ruthenians also arrived from the Kingdom of Hungary. They all merged into the same ethnic “melting pot” creating a unique “Hunky” worker’s culture in the industrial centers and mining towns of Ohio, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia in the US, and in the provinces of Ontario and Québec in Canada.

Newspaper article about a Hungarian steelworkers meeting in 1915.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners had the first ever Labor Day parade in New York City in 1882. Twelve years later in 1894 President Grover Cleveland had signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday in the US.

Union ballots were printed in Hungarian.

Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to 1872, when the Toronto Trades Assembly organized the country’s first demonstration for worker’s rights. After the Canadian Labour Congress was founded in 1883 Labour Day was celebrated every spring. In 1894, just like in the US, it was moved to September.

György Lázár

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