Learn about the UBC’s roots, from our founding through the first turbulent years to growth and today.
One of the great labor leaders of the 19th century, Peter J. McGuire was one of the founding fathers of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners and served as general secretary for our first 21 years.
McGuire was born to Irish immigrants on July 6, 1852. He was the first child in a family of five, growing up on the raucous Lower East Side of New York City. When his father joined the Union Army in 1863, Peter left school to become the family’s breadwinner.
Even though his formal education was over, he still found ways to satisfy his unending hunger for knowledge, not only by immersing himself in the culture of the city streets but also by attending classes and lectures at the Cooper Union. This meeting place was both a center for continuing education and a hub of radical and reform movements.
At 17, Peter began an apprenticeship in the Haines Piano Shop. The long hours, low wages, and difficult working conditions reinforced the rhetoric he absorbed at Cooper Union. Under the hard tutelage of Haines, Peter learned the importance of labor organization. Not long after, he led a successful fight against wage reduction at Haines. But he was harassed out of his position and took his journeyman status from job to job until the onset of the post-Civil War depression of the 1870s.
Rather than hang his head, McGuire marched. And spoke. And roused the crowds of the fellow unemployed. The venerable New York Times branded him a “disturber of the peace,” and still he thrived.
Hopping freight trains and walking hundreds of miles, McGuire went from town to town making speeches marked by eloquence, biting wit, and a rich voice. In 1881, he organized a Chicago convention to form a union. Representatives from 11 cities joined him, and over four spirited days they produced a constitution and structure. The UBC was born, with P.J. McGuire as its first general secretary.
He worked tirelessly to keep the union alive in the early years, and his efforts led to the eight-hour workday, the founding of the American Federation of Labor, and wages that more than doubled, and he built union membership to more than 167,000 members by 1903. He also crafted a lasting and historical memorial to all workers—the Labor Day holiday.