Happy Labor Day… you Socialist sons of bitches

As some of you probably know, Labor Day was first celebrated here in the United States in 1882. It wasn’t, however, made a national holiday until 1894, in the wake of a bloody strike by employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, an Illinois-based manufacturer of luxury rail cars. It all began when the company, after having cut the wages of workers across the board by as much as 25%, refused to reduce the rent charged to these same workers, who lived and worked in the company town of Pullman, Illinois. And, from there, the strike spread throughout the railroad industry… The following extended clip comes from the Kansas Heritage Group:

…The strike went peacefully, but after several weeks the Pullman management had not changed its position and the strikers were desperate for aid. During the strike, the American Railway Union had convened in Chicago because it was the rail center of the United States. The recently formed American Railway Union had 465 local unions and claimed the memberships of 150,000 workers. Since, the Pullman workers were an affiliated union on strike in Chicago the ARU offered to send arbitrators for the Pullman cause. The Pullman workers refused this aid, even so the ARU under the leadership of Eugene Debs decided to stop handling Pullman cars on June 26 if the Pullman Union would not agree to arbitration. The stage was set for the largest strike in the nation’s history.

On June 26, the ARU switchmen started to refuse to switch trains with Pullman cars. In response, the General Managers Association began to fire the switchmen for not handling the cars. The strike and boycott rapidly expanded, paralyzing the Chicago rail yards and most of the twenty-four rail lines in the city.

On July 2 a federal injunction was issued against the leaders of the ARU. This Omnibus Indictment prevented ARU leaders from “…compelling or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees to refuse or fail to perform duties…” This injunction was based on the Sherman anti-trust act and the Interstate commerce act and was issued by federal judges Peter S. Grosscup and William A. Woods under the direction of, Attorney General, Richard Olney. The injunction prevented the ARU leadership from communicating with their subordinates and chaos began to reign.

Governor Altgeld of Illinois had been hesitant to employ the state militia to put down the strike instead relying on the local authorities to handle the situation. However, he said he would use the National Guard to protect property. Above all Governor Altgeld did not want federal troops to intervene. However, the issuing of this federal injunction and the fact that mail-trains might be delayed caused President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops from Fort Sheridan. On July 3, Federal troops entered Chicago against Governor Altgeld’s repeated protests. Governor Altgeld protested by writing President Cleveland on July 5, saying, “…surely the facts have not been correctly presented to you in this case, or you would not have taken the step, for it seems to me, unjustifiable. Waiving all questions of courtesy I will say that the State of Illinois is not only able to take care of itself, but it stands ready to furnish the Federal Government any assistance it may need else where…” Despite these repeated protests by Governor Altgeld, President Cleveland continued to send in federal troops.

The reaction of the strikers to the appearance of the troops was that of outrage. What had been a basically peaceful strike turned into complete mayhem. The mayhem began on July 4, with mobs of people setting off fireworks and tipping over rail cars. The workers started to tip railcars and build blockades in reaction to the presence of the federal troops. In addition to this, there was additional level of chaos caused by the ARU leaders’ inability to communicate with the strikers because of the federal indictments. The rioting grew and spread then on July 7, a large fire consumed seven buildings at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Jackson Park. This burning and rioting came to a zenith on July 6, when fires caused by some 6,000 rioters destroyed 700 railcars and caused $340,000 of damages in the South Chicago Panhandle yards.

At this time in the Chicago vicinity, there were 6,000 federal and state troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshals. However, all this manpower could not prevent the violence from peaking when on July 7, national guardsmen after being assaulted, fired into the crowd killing at least four (possibly up to thirty) and wounding at least twenty. The killing continued when two more people were killed by troops in Spring Valley, Illinois. All this violence started to cause the strike to ebb and on that same day Eugene Debs and four other ARU leaders were arrested for violating the indictment. These officers were later realized on $10,000 bond. The strike was failing rapidly, so the ARU tried to enlist the aid of the AFL in the form of sympathetic strikes. When this was refused the ARU attempted to abandon the strike, on the grounds that workers would be rehired without prejudice except were convicted of crimes however, this offer was refused by the General Managers’ Association. The strike continued to dwindle, and trains began to move with increased frequency. The strike became untenable for the workers and on August 2 the Pullman works reopened.

This strike was truly monumental if some of the figures for lost revenues are looked at. The railroads alone lost an estimated $685,308 in expenses incurred during the strike. However, the railroads lost even more in revenue an estimated $4,672,916. In addition, 100,000 striking employees lost wages of an estimated $1,389,143. These costs are just the localized effects of the paralyzation of the nation’s rail center and do not include the far ranging financial effects. The manpower used to break the strike was also immense. The total forces of the strikebreakers both government and private were: 1,936 federal troops, 4,000 national guardsmen, about 5,000 extra deputy marshals, 250 extra deputy sheriffs, and the 3,000 policemen in Chicago for a total of 14,186 strikebreakers. In addition to these figures there were also twelve people shot and killed, and 71 people who were arrested and sentenced on the federal indictment. This strike had other far ranging consequences. The federal government took an unprecedented step in using indictments to make any form of a strike essentially illegal and supported this action by deploying federal troops against the will of the states.

The results of the Pullman Strike were both enormous and inconsequential. They were enormous because the strike showed the power of unified national unions. At the same time the strike showed the willingness of the federal government to intervene and support the capitalists against unified labor. The results were inconsequential because for all of the unified effort of the unions the workers did not get their rents lowered.

chicagopullmanstrikeSo, several men in Chicago lost their lives, labor had been struck a tremendous blow, and President Grover Cleveland, fearing an even greater worker revolt, pushed the national holiday through Congress in order to appease the masses. And, now, we celebrate the day by grilling out and taking one last dip in the pool.

Here’s to all the men and women who died so that we might enjoy the 40 hour work week, safe working conditions, and all the rest of it… Let’s enjoy the fruits of their labor while we can, because God knows we’ll see kids working in coal mines again in our lifetimes. To do otherwise, after all, would be Socialism.

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  1. Bob
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t you argue here a few years ago that unions were outdated and needed to go?

  2. Posted September 7, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m tempted to deny this outright, but, as I’ve been blogging for almost 8 years now, I suppose it’s possible that one night I wrote something negative. I don’t think, however, that, under any circumstances, I would have said that unions were outdated and had to go. I’m not that stupid. What I can recall saying once, though, is that unions have done a terrible job at public relations. I said, and I still believe, that the unions haven’t done a very good job of reminding Americans what life was like before unions, when kids were working in the coal mines and such. I suppose that could be considered negative, but in no way is it anti-union… But, if you can find an instance of me saying they were “outdated and needed to go,” I’d love to see it.

  3. Bob
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I may have the wording wrong but I remember arguing with someone here, and I thought it was you, about the tone of remarks that were made. It was regarding the auto industry and basically blaming the workers and their antiquated union for auto sales. Again, this was a few years ago. I argued that union bashing with regard to auto workers was a ploy to break the unions and further erode the middle class. Pretty much the scenario that is playing out now. Is anyone paying attention to the union busting that is being tested as we speak? They nearly pulled it off in the highly payed Troy school district this year. Now they are focused on Detroit, with this hatchet-man Robb. I recall taking a beating on this forum on this very topic. Again, I thought it was you Mark. Maybe I’m getting that part of it wrong. The consensus of most remarks was definitely negative and anti union worker. I recall being so disgusted and surprised by the tone that I stayed away from this forum for a long period…as I often do.

  4. Brackinald Achery
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    …and if your company goes under or moves overseas because of bad monetary policy, punitive regulations, and labor laws here, you can have unlimited labor days and a zero hour work week.

  5. Oliva
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Solidarity forever,
    ’cause the union makes us strong.

    Happy Labor Day, everybody.

    A little more c/o C-SPAN2 and BookTV (sometimes like comfort food), if you can stand it. Kind of fascinating, relevant too to the topic at hand because Viguerie went on to say something like it wasn’t just that Obama was the most radical blah-blah-blah socialist; he was maybe even a Marxist. I was busy writing down the couple of lines below and didn’t hear that part exactly.

    Christopher Ruddy (president and CEO, Newsmax Media, Inc.), the moderator, said to Richard Viguerie, “On the way down, you said to me that Obama represents our biggest threat . . . seems he wants to put the Republican Party out of business.”

    “Obama is the most serious opponent we’ve ever faced.” –Richard Viguerie

    7/10/09, BookTV, C-SPAN2
    FreedomFest 2009 panel, “The Future of Conservatism”

    From FreedomFest in Las Vegas, a panel discussion on where American conservatism is headed and what needs to be done to increase its influence. Participating in the discussion are: Richard Viguerie,* author of “Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause”; Jon Utley of the American Conservative magazine; Thomas Phillips, founder and chairman of Eagle Publishing; and Thomas Fuentes, member of the board of directors of Eagle Publishing. –from cspan.org

    * Recently Richard Viguerie, whom some have described as “one of the creators of the modern conservative movement,” explained how his conservative ideology actually led him to oppose the death penalty. He now is calling for a national moratorium on the death penalty. Viguerie said that capital punishment goes against conservative values. Everyone may not embrace his rationale but here it is, “Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice.”

  6. Posted September 7, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I didn’t mention May Day in my post either, which I probably should have. I just received the following note from my friend Keith Agdanowski, reminding me.

    Real Labor Day is May 1, May Day, in honor of the Haymarket victims, which is celebrated all over the world except here! US Labor Day is a BS sop to the workers of this country in order to forget their history.

  7. Posted September 7, 2009 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    And, Bob, we may have exchanged words on the auto companies. I know that I’ve had a few heated exchanges on that subject over the years. Most have been about my decision to buy a Honda Civic Hybrid in 2002. If you search back, I’m sure you can find some nice discussions where people accuse me of stabbing American workers in the back. In no time during those arguments, however, did I say the unions were outdated and needed to be destroyed. I did say, however, that I objected to their stance on environmental regulations. But, I said that as someone who likes unions, and would love to have seen them on the right side of that particular debate.

    As for my choice to buy a hybrid, I bought early, and I did so even though I knew I likely wouldn’t make my money back. I wanted to demonstrate that there was a market for new, greener technologies, and that not everyone aspired to have a gas-guzzling H2. (I knew not American company would consider alternatives unless they saw a market.) I should note that I contacted all the American companies prior to buying the Honda hybrid and asked if they were bringing similar products to the market in the short term. They weren’t. Anyway, I’ve stated my case more eloquently elsewhere, but the gist of it is that the American auto companies at that time didn’t give a shit about gas consumption, in spite of mounting evidence of global warming and a dwindling supply of oil. As some of you may recall, at that same time, I was devoting quite a bit of time to pushing Congressman Dingell to endorse more meaningful automotive goals in relation to fuel efficiency and exhaust. So it wasn’t just the union that I blamed. It was everyone involved in the process, from the shareholders of the Big 3 to Congress.

    All that aside, though, I do appreciate what unions have done. Without them we would not have had a stable, thriving middle class in this country, and all the things that come along with it.

  8. Mark H.
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this very appropriate and thoughtful Labor Day post! Mind a few pedantic professorial observations?

    Eugene Debs was sent to prison for 6 months, on a federal conviction, as a result of the Pullman strike. When he was finally released, approximately 100,000 were there, outside of Chicago, to greet this working class hero as he emerged from prison. This strike convinced many that Government and capital stood united against the common man, and that was true.

    So 100,000 people greated Debs, a political prisoner, when he was released. This was back in the day when many members of the American working class were sure that, since labor created all wealth, there would soon be born a better world, in which all humans would have a decent chance at survival, and that life would not be a race of all against all; a world in which the abudance created by industrialism would ensure that nobody would live in poverty. There was more room for imagining a different, better world back then, a century before wage labor became the near universal basis for human subsistence.

    Wages don’t pay what’s needed to live; they pay just what is required to recruit the minimally acceptable laborer for a given task. That measure of valuing human effort impoverishes the human soul, and quite often starves humans as well. It may create profit, but it has failed to create sustainable, prosperous human communities.

    Some will say that’s just the way it is, and they’re right. But it’s not always been that way, and it need not perhaps always be that way.

    Twenty five years after his Pullman strike prison term, Eugene Debs was sent to prison for 10 years, for opposing US involvement in World War I. He opposed that involvement with the most powerful of all weapons — words, ideas, reason. He was from the not so radical town of Terre Haute, Indiana, a homegrown radical democrat, loyal to the ideas of the Founders as he understood them.

    And yeah, Debs was on the losing side of that battle against war, too, just as the battle against the rise of the wages system was lost. But he was a hero to many, and he won 6% of the 1912 presidential vote. Hardly a marginal figure, but now forgotten.

    And hey — Labor Day was a holiday demanded by American workers, not a mere sop to them from on-high. Just because May Day didn’t become a holiday here doesn’t mean Labor Day wasn’t genuine. Granted, different sections of labor favored different days for labor to honor itself, but both were genuinely American working class celebrations. And May Day’s roots were in the violence of Chicago labor struggles in the 1880s – not something all working class activists wanted to associate with, for pretty good reasons! Labor Day was never associated with the bomb throwing of the first American May Day, and I’d say it was smart to avoid that association, Keith! After 1886, few American workers were drawn to anarchism, and more toward socialism. This is part of the reason why May Day had less staying power here than elsewhere in the world. But is May Day still, in our time, celebrated world wide? Not sure it is….

  9. Posted September 7, 2009 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    Happy Labor Day…I grew up in the company town of Pullman across the street from the factory pictured in the post. I guess that explains my bleeding (red) heart tendencies. If you are ever in Chicago, it is worth a visit…pullmanil.org/

  10. Posted September 8, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Happy (belated) Labor Day, and thanks for posting this. It is amazing that most people in the U.S. know so little about their own country’s labor history. Posts like this are really helpful as public education.

  11. Posted September 8, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Mark H.: Yes, it is still celebrated, because in many countries May 1 is an official holiday.

    See: International Workers Day and Labour Day on Wikipedia.

    May 1 is a national holiday in Albania, Argentina, Aruba, Austria, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, China, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo,Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia (locally known as Hari Buruh), Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Lebanon, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, North Korea, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, the Philippines (spelled as “Labor Day”), Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Suriname, Sweden, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, Uganda, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

    In Slovenia, Serbia and Ukraine, May 2 is also a national holiday.

    In Poland, while May 1 is a national holiday, it was renamed from Labour Day to simply “State Holiday” in 1990.

    In some Caribbean nations, a labour holiday is provided on the first Monday of May, which may coincide with May 1 but often does not. These nations include Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, the British overseas territory of Montserrat, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Also, in Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory follow this policy.

  12. Mark H.
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Cmadier, my point wasn’t clear when I raised the question of whether May Day is as widely celebrated internationally as sometimes claimed. Merely having a national holiday designated doesn’t necessarily mean it’s popularly or widely ‘celebrated.’ What does a national holiday in say, Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, mean? No postal service? Public celebrations? I don’t know; but I doubt it means a paid day off work for nearly all workers in many of those countries. I suspect this: In most of the countries on this venerable list of May Day holiday nations, there is not a holiday in which the nation ceases its normal functions and honors labor. The Wikkipedia entry is wide but shallow in terms of the info required to answer my question.

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