I’m guessin’ it’s the history teacher in me that led me on my quest to refresh my memory on the origin of Labor Day. I’ll keep it as light hearted and easy to follow as possible. No one really wants educatin’ on a holiday.
Let’s get the particulars out of the way first. Labor Day is recognized on the first Monday of September. As a kid, I remember school not starting until after Labor Day. In so many school districts across the country, that’s hardly the case anymore. This year in Willis, Texas at the Peters Household, Labor Day is marked by somber storms clouds and welcoming rains. I think it’s the first in a long time in which hamburgers and a full house aren’t the norm. I’m content however watching old John Wayne movies, hanging out with my mustached man child and nursing my ole girl, Nana.
Saddle up for the learnin’ ladies and gents.
Workers across the country were fighting for better wages, a shorter work week and better worker conditions. If the plight of the working class lit the flame, the Pullman Strike fueled the fire that led to what we now know as Labor Day.
George Pullman was a millionaire. His claim to fame was the invention of the sleeper car known as the Pullman Car. It was fancy.
With the success of the Pullman Car, Pullman’s status went to his head. He named a city in Illinois after himself, as any good millionaire would do.
This little Illinois city housed his factory and his workers. A true business man of sorts, he knew what he was doing in this little town. By building a town for his workers, ole George could control costs and pump the money back into his town. Workers were paid, sometimes with coupons instead of cash – check. Workers pay rent and buy goods – check. Pullman gets richer – check.
All was right in Pullman’s world until The Panic of 1893. This economic recession hit Georgie Boy right where it hurt him most, his pocketbook. No worries, “ole Pullman adapts, at the expense of this workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company. He cuts the wages of 4,000 workers. He does not, however, adjust their overhead accordingly. Shrud to say the least.
Pullman had no intention of sitting down and hearing the workers out. There’d be no negotiatin’ and no bargainin’. Not for ‘ole Georgie boy. Workers respond. They aren’t part of a union but strike nonetheless. Thousands of Pullman’s workers walked off the job and participated in a Wildcat Strike. Pullman wouldn’t have it.
The ARU or American Railway Union was one of two main unions in the country at the time. The AFL and Samuel Gompers didn’t want to have anything to do with this strike. So, in steps the ARU or American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs.
I’m pretty sure Debs saw this plight by the railroad workers as his way to grow his union and make his mark. The ARU was young in nature but managed to organize a national strike in 27 cities across the United States. The goal? Workers in those states would walk off their jobs if Pullman Cars graced their tracks. There were some workers that wanted nothing to do with the strike or the union and didn’t participate. There were enough bodies participating, however, that the strike was taking hold. Carriers were being shut down and the U.S. Mail service was being interrupted. Bet you can guess what happens next.
Enter the Feds. By this time a quarter of a million workers had walked off the job. They weren’t malicious in their intentions. They just wanted to sit down and talk to Millionaire George. Negotiatin’ and fraternizin’ with his workers was beneath Georgie, don’t forget.
The strike was working, so the big wigs of the railroads fought back. Enter, scabs or non-union workers. Violence ensues.
Eventually, President Grover Cleveland steps in. Well, 12,000 U.S. troops step in on his behalf going to each city halting the strikes. Cleveland also issues an injunction citing the Interstate Commerce Clause in the Constitution. The government sides with big business. Debs ignores the injunction. This ordeal is marked by roughly 50,000,000 in damages and around 30 deaths with many others critically injured. Debs, by violating the first injunction winds up going to jail for six months. While there, he studies the works of Karl Marx and and becomes radicalized. He ran for President under the Socialist Party Banner numerous times. Pullman never negotiated. He was investigated by the Feds in the end losing his precious city. There was no unskilled labor union formed. The Pullman Strike was unsuccessful for the most part.
Basically, President Cleveland signed and pushed the Labor Day Bill in an attempt to bandage the wounds and help wipe up the blood shed during the Pullman Strike. The bill was signed in June of 1894.
There you have it. As you enjoy your day off, give a nod to the backbone of American, the working class men and women of this country. Before you leave, give this Tennessee Ernie Ford song a listen. No, he’s not singing about the Pullman Strike or railroad workers but the same message is at the core. 16 Tons – by Ernie Ford
Happy Labor Day!
The New York Times reported that there were not as “participants as expected.” 10,000 working class folks filled the streets of New York. I got a giggle when I read that “Nearly all where clothed, some wearing fashionable attire.” (New York Times) That statement begs the question, had they had a run of naked paraders in the streets of New York in days past?
The Pullman Strike jacked up the rail traffic and interfered with the U.S. Mail. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me backup a bit.