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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.