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Labor Day in the U.S.: A Legacy of Worker Struggle, Bloodshed, and Progress

pullman-strike-1894For many Americans, Labor Day is simply considered a day off of work for barbequing. Few people know the origins of this holiday, and the fact that it comes from a historical moment when the government was offing workers.

The events began with a serious recession in the early 1890s that lowered demand for railway cars, causing Chicago railway magnate George Pullman to lay off workers and cut wages. Many of the rail car laborers staged a strike. Meanwhile, American Railway Union demonstrated its solidarity with the rail car builders by refusing to handle Pullman cars, which handicapped commerce in several parts of the U.S.

“The boycott tapped the deep and pervasive alienation of labor in general,” historian David Ray Papke wrote in his 1999 book The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America.

“Workers were mad about their situation,” Papke wrote. “They were angry about their limited opportunities and about what they took to be the mean and arbitrary treatment they received from the distant owners of the industries in which they worked.”

The Pullman strike began in May 1894. Congress soon passed legislation designating the first Monday of September a day to recognize workers. (A holiday of that nature had already been demanded by labor leaders, although some critics have simply dismissed the Labor Day legislation as a tactic to “appease” angry workers.) Then the following month, President Grover Cleveland deployed federal troops to Chicago to crush the strikers.

John Altgeld, the Illinois Governor at the time, strongly disagreed with the president’s decision, since up to that point there had not been any significant rioting. “I protest against this uncalled for reflection upon our people, and again ask the immediate withdrawal of these troops,” Altgeld wrote to the president.

Clearly the workers and other Chicago citizens resented the presence of federal troops as well, and within a day of their arrival, angry protestors started tipping railroad cars and lighting them on fire. The soldiers responded harshly by firing on protestors, after which the rioting and property destruction only increased. Dozens of American workers were ultimately killed in Chicago and elsewhere. By fall, relative quiet returned to Chicago, and the American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs was imprisoned on charges of “defying a court order.”

The website for the U.S. Department of Labor’s discusses the history of Labor Day noting how this holiday “is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.” But strangely, the DOL doesn’t mention the Pullman strike or the history of U.S. labor struggle in general, even though throughout American history, workers have had to fight for fair wages and shorter hours. In fact, the 40-hour week, legislation against children’s labor, and the weekend itself were won by the struggles of labor – these weren’t just handed over by lawmakers and progressive-minded managers.

“I think most people consider Labor Day an end-of-summer three-day weekend,” Papke, a law professor at Marquette University, said in an interview. “Very few Americans stop to reflect on the working man, on labor, on the union movement or any of those things.”

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Emery Reddy