Union History

Peter J. McGuire: First UBC General Secretary

One of the great labor leaders of the 19th century, Peter J. McGuire helped found the UBC. He also served as the union’s first general secretary.

Born to Irish immigrants, McGuire grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side. He left school at 11 to become the family’s breadwinner and later became an apprentice in the Haines Piano Shop. There McGuire was exposed to long hours, low wages, and difficult working conditions—reinforcing the pro-labor views he had absorbed as a sometime student at Cooper Union, a gathering spot for radicals. McGuire went on to lead a successful fight against wage cuts at Haines.

Ultimately harassed out of his position, McGuire began moving from job to job as a journeyman. When work dried up during the 1870s depression, he began to march, speak, and rouse crowds of his fellow unemployed. In August 1881, he organized a Chicago convention, where 36 carpenters from 11 U.S. cities united to form a union for carpenters, and the UBC was born. A few months later, carpenters in Hamilton, Ontario became the first Canadian UBC members, and Toronto Carpenters joined in early 1882.

McGuire spearheaded efforts that led to the eight-hour workday and the founding of the American Federation of Labor. During his UBC tenure, wages more than doubled, and by 1903 the North American UBC had grown to more than 167,000 members. McGuire’s legacy to American and Canadian workers lives on in Labor Day, a holiday he proposed.

Much has changed in the more than 135-years since UBC was founded, but the union today continues its unwavering commitment to helping carpenters improve their lives, their futures, and their trade.