Remembering those who died so that we might picnic on Labor Day

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of Labor Day, I thought that I’d share this old post one more time.


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.

update: I’ve been keeping my eyes open for a more up-to-date version of the following graphic, which was put out a few years ago by the folks at Think Progress, but I haven’t found anything. I can’t imagine, however, that things have gotten any better.

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  1. Demetrius
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the history lesson, Mark.

    It is is amazing how many people today take the 40-hour week, overtime, vacation pay, sick days, job security, retirement, and a relatively safe workplace, etc., for granted. Many also don’t understand the role of social reformers, supportive politicians – and the collective bargaining power of unions – in making these things a “norm” for many workers.

    Many of today’s employers may *seem* modern and enlightened – but the stunning growth in corporate power, deregulation, and “free trade” agreements on steroids, means the balance has slowly but surely begun shifting back in the other direction.

    Real wages, benefits, and working conditions for everyone except the top-tier have been declining for decades – yet most are working too hard, and are too atomized, to notice – let alone do anything about it.

  2. Jcp2
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Those are all great things to recognize, but don’t forget the exclusionary policies of the labor unions around the time of this event, as well as the nativism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia of organized labor well into the twentieth century. Even today, those benefits that the middle class and above take for granted are disproportionately unavailable to the same groups of people that organized labor excluded a century ago. Trumpism now was organized labor back then.

  3. Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Terrific points, Demetrius. And thanks, Jcp2 for reminding us that unions didn’t fight on behalf of all Americans during that period in American history. I do take some issue, however, with your comparing organized labor then to Trump supporters now. While I think you might be right to an extent, at least as far as the appeal to racists is concerned, I’d like to think that early American union organizers would have the sense to see Trump for what he truly is, which is a robber baron who has never give a damn about the rights of working men and women, regardless of their race.

  4. John Galt
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    If you can repost the same article, I can repost the same comment.

    John Galt
    Posted September 8, 2015 at 10:44 am:
    “Why do you hate children? Why do you hate freedom? No one forced children to work in coal mines. They chose to do so. That is called freedom, and we need more of it today. Stop forcing children into government schools. Allow them to breath the sweet air of freedom through a hose at the bottom of a coal mine.”

  5. EOS
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    A couple of racists have supported Trump, but Clinton called a former Klan leader her “friend and mentor”.

  6. Demetrius
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    “Trumpism now was organized labor back then.”

    It is often easy to disparage the accomplishments of earlier generations because some of the people leading them didn’t conform to today’s more enlightened attitudes.

    Yes – it is true that many early union leaders reflected the regressive social attitudes of their day. But keep in mind, they were often relatively uneducated “factory rats.” Do you really expect they would be extraordinarily open-minded or socially-conscious, in the context of their times?

    As the 20th Century wore on, unions not only grew in power and influence, they also grew in sophistication – often leading, rather than resisting, efforts that championed equality and social reform. This included providing crucial support for political efforts that brought us landmark legislation such as Social Security, the Civil Rights Act and “Great Society” reforms.

    Just as true, millions of people who were never formally union members – including women, people of color, and others – have benefited greatly from higher wages and working conditions that were the result of higher standards set by pressure from unions.

    One last thought: I worry that these days, many well-educated people who consider themselves “progressive” in terms of race, gender, sexuality, etc., sometimes have a contradictory disdain for poor and working people – especially anybody who works with their hands, or belongs to a union, etc. I believe the reason we were able to make such substantial progress in mid-20th Century America was because there was a broad spectrum of people – people of color, factory workers, farm workers, students, teachers, college professors, etc. – who all recognized they had shared values, and shared interests.

    I believe that if we are ever going to turn back the tide, we’ll need to dial back some of the focus on narrow group identities, and rediscover the idea of shared values, and mutual class consciousness.

  7. Posted September 5, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Just to keep the facts straight, Robert Byrd was in the KKK briefly in the 1940s, and spoke out against it for the rest of his life. When Clinton knew him, he’d been firmly against it for decades.

  8. Jcp2
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    On the contrary, I do support the efforts of the SEIU and the United Farm Workers. These groups appear to me to representing the truly disenfranchised. However, when I was young, it was quite clear to me, because of my appearance, that good paying union work Teamster and UAW style would not be a realistic option for me. The last recession brought out shades of Vincent Chin in the neighborhoods where I used to work, and I had concerns about my car because of a non big 3 nameplate. Never mind that it was a Ford affiliate that I bought on X Plan. There were even Mazdas built at Flat Rock with UAW labor that were vandalized. So no, I do not support organized labor without qualifications. The best path for me for socioeconomic mobility did not include that path as an option back then.

  9. Demetrius
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 9:57 am | Permalink


    So are you saying that because a few union members (or union leaders) were racists or bigots, that negates all the other positive aspects the union movement brought to literally tens of millions of people?

    And what do you mean by “truly disenfranchised?” Are some people (or groups) more worthy of having unions fight for their interests than others?

    This is related to the point I was trying to make above: As long as members of individual groups continue to allow themselves to be pitted against each other (people of color vs. white folks; men vs. women; urban vs. rural … SEIU vs. UAW … the ultra-rich will continue to take advantage of the chaos to make us all poorer.

  10. Tom Perez, Secretary of Labor
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Labor Day is about more than picnics and parades. We celebrate this day to reflect on America’s labor movement — the men and women who have helped build this country and our middle class. Because they’ve spoken up together and demanded fairness, we can all enjoy things like the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, minimum wage, safer workplaces, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, and retirement plans.

    For generations, hardworking Americans have been raising their voices, together. Giving people a voice at work — the ability to organize and negotiate for their fair share of the value they helped create — is absolutely essential to a growing, vibrant middle class. For the past seven and a half years, President Obama has worked not only to grow the economy but to create a balanced economy, where everyone’s hard work is rewarded, where everyone gets a fair shake, where everyone has the chance to get ahead. Simply put, America is stronger when more people have more.

    As the President has said, all of that progress is stamped with the union label. And it’s all fueled by a simple belief: that our economy works better when it works for everybody.

    That’s the spirit that’s made the progress of these past seven and a half years possible. Not only have businesses added 15.1 million jobs since early 2010, and we’ve seen the longest streak of total job growth on record, but we’ve cut the unemployment rate in half since the depths of the recession. So many American families are better off this Labor Day than they were seven years ago.

    But we still have work to do. We can only make progress — like raising the minimum wage and expanding access to paid leave — if hardworking men and women raise their voices.

    History shows that working families can get a fair shot in this country — but only if we are willing to organize and fight for it. So whether you simply talk to your coworkers about what matters to you, or take the step of joining a union, the power ultimately rests with you.” — President Obama

    So this Labor Day, read a special message from the President on the power of American workers, then learn more about how we’ve worked together to strengthen our voices in the workplace.

    Happy Labor Day. Let’s continue standing with our workers — not just today, but every day of the year.


  11. Taco Farts
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    What if we were able to celebrate or be thankful for the actions of people in history without believing it also automatically endorsed every time they pleasured themselves in the outhouse while thinking about someone other than their spouse?

    Seriously, people, there are so many valid options for your outrage. But I guess if you pick one of those, you actually have to, like, try to help rather than just crap all over comment sections.

    Also, if you’re “grilling” with gas you’re part of the problem.

  12. Jcp2
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Thank you all for reminding me that we can celebrate positive accomplishments of the past while acknowledging that not everything is perfect, as long as the celebratory mood is kept intact. I look forward to seeing this level of celebratory discourse next Columbus Day.

  13. anonymous
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Comparing Clinton and Trump on labor.

  14. maryd
    Posted September 6, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    The UAW did helped bring about more equality between the races and between men and women. Decent pay for all regardless of gender or race evened out the playing field in ways that made a huge difference.

  15. iRobert
    Posted September 22, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Robert Byrd used to be one of those Hillary would put in her basket of “deplorables.” As we all know, that means he’s “irredeemable.” As far as I know, the definition of the two words are the same.

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