Labor Day – Of Pullman, Debs, and Cleveland
Ah, Labor Day. The unofficial end of summer. A three day weekend with cookouts, pool parties, retail sales, and political campaigns kicking into high gear. To most Americans, that’s all there is to it. But why do we have a federal holiday with the designation ‘Labor Day’? Essentially, we have three people to thank (blame?) for this extended weekend.
Way back in the late 1800’s, labor unions were fairly important, influential groups in American society and politics. Virtually any skilled trade had a national organization with local chapters, from carpenters to ironworkers to engineers. Even some unskilled workers had organized unions, such as the American Railway Union, or ARU. The ARU included most any sort of railway worker, but the majority of members were unskilled workers.
Just outside of Chicago was the planned community of Pullman. The town was essentially owned by George M. Pullman, who also was the owner/president of Pullman Palace Car Company, maker of railroad cars. Pullman built the town for his factory workers, and charged them rent. However, following the Panic of 1893, Pullman cut the wages of his employees by as much as 25%. The workers’ rents stayed the same, however. The ARU had recently struck, successfully, against the Great Northern Railway for similar wage cuts, and decided to strike against Pullman. At first, the workers did not have the full support of the ARU, so on May 11, 1984, they launched a wildcat strike, ceasing to pull or service any trains with a Pullman car on it. The wildcat worked, as the rest of the ARU quickly joined in, led by union president Eugene V. Debs.
Now, I could dedicate an entire post just to Mr. Debs, but that will have to wait. Briefly though, Debs was born to French immigrants who were no stranger to wealth, owning both a meat market and a textile mill. He dropped out of high school at 14, and began his railroad career as a painter, car cleaner, and later a locomotive fireman. He attended business school and became heavily involved with unions by the age of 20. He held various positions of rank within the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman before eventually running, successfully, for 2 terms as city clerk in his home town, and later one term on the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat.
Debs originally opposed the Pullman Strike, but quickly relented as it spread beyond Chicago, and eventually, all the way to California. The strike, referred to in that time as “Deb’s Rebellion”, crippled the national railroad infrastructure, including U.S. Mail deliveries. It was at this point that President Grover Cleveland stepped in, ordering an injunction against Debs and the ARU, calling for the strike to end. Once it was clear that he had been ignored, Cleveland ordered military intervention to break the strike and set the mail cars back to work. In the process of breaking the striking, an estimated $80 million in damages and vandalism occurred, and at least 30 people were killed. Debs and the rest of the Board for the ARU were arrested for ignoring a federal injunction and interfering with U.S. Mail deliveries. While in prison, Debs immersed himself in the works of Karl Marx, and later ran for President as a Socialist 6 consecutive times, starting in 1900.
Even after the strike was over, and the town of Pullman was incorporated into Chicago, public opinion generally was still a resentment of the ARU for the strike, and of Debs for leading the charge. The (then unbiased) New York Times declared him “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.” Nevertheless, Cleveland and the great majority of Congress feared for their political careers and passed legislation declaring the first Monday of September a federal holiday: Labor Day. The bill was signed into law a whopping 6 days after the strike was broken. Talk about a union stranglehold.
Various labor organization had proposed a similar holiday as early as 10 years prior to the Pullman Strike, and some states had even begun observing such a holiday on a state level. But, thanks to the grossly immoral business practices of George Pullman, the aggressive tactics of democrat-turned-socialist (not much of a turn, I know) Eugene Debs, and the fear of losing union support by Grover Cleveland, we now have a National Labor Day. To celebrate and honor American workers! And the Unions that control them! But the first Monday of September? That’s a bit arbitrary. Well, that was because the politicians had to find a balance between placating the unions, who wanted to use May Day (a communist workers’ holiday), and the American population, who were put off by communism and all of it’s wares.
So in summary, as you enjoy cold beers, swimming pools, and cookouts today, remember this: were it not for the crippling stranglehold that unions have over politicians, you’d be at work today. That is, of course, if your not one of the 23 + million unemployed. Enjoy!!