In December 1881 a meeting was called by the prominent trade unionist Robert Blissert for the new year for the purpose of ‘sending greetings and encouragement to the tenants and workingmen of Ireland in their struggle against the English feudal landlordism.’ At the meeting, a manifesto to the workingmen of all countries, in both English and German, signed by Matthew Maguire but which Theodore Cuno claimed to have written, was presented ‘to encourage the suffering and struggling Irish people’. The meeting also took the opportunity to ask delegates from trade and labor organizations whether they would be in favor of forming a ‘United Labor Organization’, a suggestion which was agreed a month later.
In March, after an address by Van Patten, President of the Socialistic Labor party, the Organization of United Trade and Labor Organizations of New York, Brooklyn and Jersey was established. While strongly socialist in spirit, it sought to provide a base for Greenbackers, concentrating on the working classes for their ‘their own natural protection, education and social advancement’. Robert Blissert was elected as chairman, and Matthew Maguire, as usual, the secretary. In this development, Blissert saw the opportunity for a progressive labor federation linking the interests of labor with universal land reform, but drawing in socialist, trade union, and Knights of Labor principles.It adopted the name of the Central Labor Union of New York City and Vicinity in March 1882.
The organization, effectively a federation of local trade unions, grew very quickly and within six months could claim 50 member organizations and over 40,000 affiliated members. Its platform spread well beyond the original emphasis on Ireland and land reform to a broader range of labor and radical issues. As such, it also included the eight-hour day; child labor; the contract system on public works; contract prison labor; equal pay for both sexes; the sanitary inspections of mines, factories and all conditions of labor; the conspiracy law, tramp laws, and all class privileges; and the issuing of all currency or money without intervention of banking corporations.
It was quickly able to organize mass meetings and demonstrations of several thousand and quickly moved into broader labor issues. By May it was confident enough to decide that it would involve itself in the forthcoming elections for Congress and State though this prioritization of politics over unionism would be an important tension within the organization.
As part of its political front, which included the intention to establish to establish a United Labor party, and also to demonstrate the strength the organization had achieved, it organized a very successful Massive Festival, Parade and Pic-Nic in Manhattan on September 5th 1882. This has subsequently been seen as the original labor day parade. A dismal showing in the subsequent elections meant that by 1883 its original triumphs were dissipated and it went through a number of phases – including the promotion of physical force – but became a significant player again in 1886 when it supported the candidacy of Henry George for Mayor of New York.