Labor Day and the Railroads

3 09 2012

The origins of Labor Day date back to 1882. Over the coming decade, the movement grew as more and more states officially recognized the holiday in observance of the hard-working men and women who made America’s growth possible. The event would not become a national holiday until 1894, amidst a series of events that seems as ironic as it is tragic.

The Pullman Strike

George Pullman established the town of Pullman, Illinois in 1880 as a “model community” for his workers. Pullman was quite proud of his creation, even offering public tours of the town to demonstrate its many attributes. Beneath the surface however, all was not so bright. Many of the homes were poorly built, sometimes even lacking interior plumbing. Rent in the houses was on average 25% higher than could be found in neighboring communities for comparable dwellings. Yet workers were forced to live in the company town and pay rent as a condition of employment.


This 1893 cartoon illustrated the root of the problem from the workers’ perspective. Although the names have changed, the illustration could fit well for many events in history and even current times.

The panic of 1893 created harsh economic times for the Pullman Company like the rest of the country. Workers were forced to take several pay cuts which ultimately amounted to nearly 1/4 of their salaries. No comparable relief to the monthly rent requirements was offered. When workers sent representatives to request such relief, the requests were denied and three of the committeemen were fired.

Seeing no other option, workers peacefully walked out of their jobs on May 10, 1894. The plant closed the following day.

The strike languished for nearly two months with little resolve until additional railroad unions began to take up the charge. The American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, joined in sympathy on June 26. Soon workers across the country refused to switch or service Pullman cars. The nation’s passenger system ground to a halt. What had begun as a dispute over fixed rent in a single company town became the first nation-wide strike in U.S. history.

Workers and Troops

This Harper’s Weekly illustration depicts the Federal troops as they marched through the crowds of striking workers.

Faced with growing scorn from the powerful railroad barons, President Cleveland used the disruption in mail trains (since the US Mail was often carried on passenger trains) as justification to take the strike out of the hands of the states and declared it a Federal crime. On July 3, Cleveland ordered 12,000 troops from the U.S. Army to Chicago and other cities to break the strike.

The arrival of the troops greatly angered the striking mobs, which to this point had been mostly peaceful. Violence erupted on July 4 and continued for several days. Ultimately, 12 were killed, 71 arrested (including Debs) and hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage were inflicted upon the rail yards of Chicago.


What had been a peaceful strike ended in an almost unimaginable wake of destruction and death as shown in this view of Chicago rail yards from Harper’s Weekly.

The strike itself would linger on for another month, but ultimately to no avail. The Pullman workers returned to their jobs on August 2. The strike was officially declared over on the 3rd. Debs was imprisoned, the ARU disbanded, and the original rent and wage conditions that started it all remained. The precedents established by the government intervention would remain unchanged until passage of the Wagner act in 1935, crippling the labor movement.

Labor Day

In the midst of all this national chaos, Congress took up the act to make Labor Day a national holiday. The bill was rushed through Congress and passed on June 28, just days before Cleveland ordered troops to Chicago. This act took what had already become a recognized holiday in most states and would make it official in all states, territories and the District of Columbia. The first Monday of September was chosen as the annual date.

Grover Cleveland

President Grover Cleveland

Reluctantly, Cleveland signed the bill into law on August 9 – 6 days after the strike ended. It was a campaign promise in an election year. Although many of the bills supporters proposed the act as a good-will gesture and true recognition of the workers’ and their contributions, one has to wonder how the timing of the final passage felt to the railroad workers of the time.

Now more than a century of time has helped heal the wounds of the bloodshed, violence and hardships that surrounded the law’s passage. Today the original intent of the law rings more true, its sentiment backed by other laws which give more than just kind words to labor and its needs. Although the Pullman Strike and its effects are seldom mentioned in connection with the holiday today, their timing was not coincidental, their effect not inconsequential.



5 responses

3 09 2012

I am very impressed Lionel took the time to print this article Although many of us in the hobby enjoy what railroading has accomplished. We need to
remember the sacrifices made by so many to make this country and the railroads great. The robber barons unfortunately were mostly sociopathic, money junkies who didn’t care about the workers who often passionately cared for their jobs and brought the various railroads great respect and glory.

I do realize it was not all of them. Too many were abusive where history records a much darker picture. The Unions played a vital role in helping in
those early years but as they to have become corrupt with leftist thug types
they are no better than the Robber Barons they fought.

It appears today owners of RR’s have a much different attitude towards their companies and employees. I look at how Norfolk Southern has recently celebrated its fallen flags they didn’t have to do it but they did, and much to
their credit they have a sense of their own history. Since the age of 13 I have held Union Pacific Stock and read their reports and I can tell you the exec’s today care about Railroads and their companies. U.P. spends time and money in historic preservation of Steamers and old passenger cars and RR
Stations. When I worked for a traveling medical care group in the midwest I saw how raillines preserved some stations even making coffee shops and Italian Restaurants while still in keeping with the history of the station. All this instaed of tearing it down.

Thanks Lionel for your honesty in reporting this topic!1

28 08 2013
Mike Matejka

Commendations to Lionel for some honest labor history. I not only own Lionel trains, but I am a union member and actively teach labor history. For “Train Day” at Chicago Union Station this year, I worked with the Pullman State Historic Site to tell the story of the Pullman strike. What you wrote is very accurate. For readers of this article, the National Park Service Advocates are pushing to have Pullman made a National Historic Site. Perhaps Lionel should sign on to this effort as a sponsor and promoter. Pullman is not only a story of labor, but also of technology, sociology and railroad history — hopefully it can make Park Service status. Legislation is drafted and pending introduction into Congress.

28 08 2013
Barney McClelland

Great article. As a union member who shares a hometown with Eugene V. Debs (Terre Haute, Indiana), I appreciate an accurate account not filled with diatribes towards organized labor. Thank you

30 08 2013
Pat Matthews

Who is John Galt?

1 09 2014
Conductor Andrew

Reblogged this on theredcaboose1.

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