Peter J McGuire, born in 1852 in New York City, was a carpenter and, in his early years, a political activist as well as an active labor unionist. He was a founder of the Social Workingmen’s Party of America in the mid-1870s, which later became a constituent part of the Socialistic Labor party. He promoted the tactical fusion in 1880 of the socialists and the Greenbackers. Increasingly his interests became identified with practical labor unionism. He founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1881, and set up The Carpenter journal. In the early 1880s he was involved with the Knights of Labor and was one of the Brooklyn Local Assembly 1562 members suspended in 1882 for their activities against the Order’s leadership.
He was initially regarded as a firebrand agitator moving between unionism and socialism, and in the late 1870s and early 1880s a ubiquitous and effective platform speaker. However, during the 1880s, after his foray into the Knights of Labor, he became disillusioned with the ephemeral organizations and focused on a more practical trade unionism that could deliver real benefits to its members.
A strong supporter of labor federations, he was involved with the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in the early 1880s, he became one of the founders of the successor American Federation of Labor, for whom he worked as an organizer for nearly twenty years.
For a long time he was considered to be the ‘father of Labor Day’. While this title is now disputed in favor of Matthew Maguire, he was involved with the network of New York radicals who can claim to have organized the original event. However, it was his talents as platform agitator and advocate that that were most useful.
By the end of the century he had fallen out of favor with his union colleagues, and a combination of embezzlement and alcoholism led to his being voted out of office in 1902.