Labor Day and the American Worker
For many Americans, Labor Day is merely the last day of summer, the last chance to sleep in late, clean the storm drains, take the children to the park, perhaps unearth the barbecue from the garage for an impromptu cookout.
However, contrary to its present day manifestation, Labor Day was a actually a hard-won holiday, born out of a tense struggle between labor rights groups, exploitative corporations, and the federal government to achieve livable wages for railroad car factory workers. Troubling parallels exist between the origin of the holiday and our current economic climate, and it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect upon the often forgotten history behind the holiday to discover the strength and inspiration to face our modern day challenges.
Labor Day was established in 1894 in the wake of the nationwide conflict between the American Railway Union (ARU) and railroad companies. The conflict began in Pullman, Illinois, home to the Pullman Palace Car Company. George Pullman, the paternalistic father of both the railroad car company and the eponymous town, had pledged that his company provided a veritable paradise in which his employees were free from want or need. However, in response to the Panic of 1893 and subsequent recession, he forgot his promise, and promptly laid off hundreds of employees, slashed the wages of those who remained, and failed to adjust their rental prices, effectively deepening the wage cuts. The employees complained about the unjust wage reduction, but Pullman ignored their concerns. Thus spurned, 4,000 employees walked off the job and refused to return until Pullman returned their wages, reduced their rents, or agreed at least to come to the bargaining table.
The wildcat strike caught the attention of the American Railway Union, headed by the famed labor organizer and five-time Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Debs was an accomplished orator and staunch advocate of the American worker, and was often jailed for his causes. Therefore, after hearing of the unjust wage reductions of the workers, threw the entire weight of the mighty ARU into the struggle, transforming what was an insular strike into a nationwide battle between rail workers and railroad companies. When Pullman refused to arbitrate with his workers, Debs quickly organized a boycott of all railroads companies that used cars manufactured by the Pullman Company, intending to force the companies to encourage Pullman to negotiate with his frustrated employees. 125,000 railroad employees in Chicago walked off the job. Though centered in Illinois, the boycott stymied railroad traffic across the country. Violence erupted in cities and towns that lay on the rail lines when railroad companies, fearing lost profit, began hiring strikebreakers to fill the vacant positions. In Blue Island Illinois, for example, what began as a peaceful rally of ARU members and supports devolved into mayhem, in which enraged workers set fire to downtown building and overturned a rail car. Elsewhere in western states, workers and supporters by leaving their posts, blocking the passage of rail cars, and attaching strikebreakers.
In July, when the unrest reached a crescendo, the federal government intervened. Using the Sherman Antitrust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act, President Grover Cleveland, an anti-unionist, placed a comprehensive injunction against the ARU, prohibiting members from "...compelling or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees to refuse or fail to perform duties." Debs and the ARU refused to obey the injunction; and, on Independence Day, the President issued federal forces to stop out the strike. Riots broke out in Chicago and other cities as strikers clashed with the troops. In Chicago, rioters set off fireworks, over turned rail cars, and built blockades to prevent the movement of trains. A crowd of 6,000 in Jackson Park started a fire that consumed seven downtown buildings, 700 hundred railcars, and caused hundreds of thousand dollars in damages in the South Chicago Panhandle yards. On July 7th, National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of protests, killing upwards of thirty and wounding far more. More shootings occurred in Spring Valley, among other places. By the time the strike had ended on August 3rd, 12 people lay dead, 57 were wounded, and the damage to public and private property exceeded $80 million. Additionally, Debs was arrested for violating the federal injunction, where he would
In late August, a mere six days after the violence had ceased and the strike ended, Congress rushed through and the President signed into law a resolution marking the first Monday of September as Labor Day. The reasons for the holiday are many. President Cleveland was in a difficult presidential race that year, and he hoped to secure their support in November. Additionally, thirty states already had a holiday that honored American workers, and it was only logical that the federal government recognize them. Most substantially of all, the President, for the first time, recognized the immense power inherent in unified workers, and, by honoring them and their contributions, he sought to assuage their anger and prevent their rising up again.
Labor Day, both the history and the promise contained within in it, is particularly relevant today. The American worker is embattled. Manufacturing jobs are rapidly diminishing, and wages for middle class Americans over the last 30 years have stagnated or else fallen. Meanwhile, compensation for the top one percent has skyrocketed. The federal and state governments have on the whole ignored the cries of the people. Private and public unions, our one protection against the free market and our one voice inside of the corridors of Washington, have been slowly and inexorably eroded since 1970. Nevertheless, as the Pullman workers, Eugene Debs, and the ARU recognized over a century ago, the American worker still has power. The prosperity of the country rides on his or her back. And, if they should stand, the foundations of everything will shake.