A big “thank you” to all those who died in the Chicago rail yards so that we might have the day off to grill hot dogs… Happy Labor Day

I know it’s probably cheating, but here’s something that I posted more than half a decade ago on the occasion of Labor Day. If anything, I think it’s even more appropriate today, seeing as how Michigan has since become a so-called “right to work” state, and we now how have an unquestionably anti-worker administration running our country.

pullmantownstrike

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.

So, 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: A link to the following graph was just left in the comments section. I thought that it deserved to be up here, where it had a greater likelihood of catching your attention.

[note: I posted the above update in 2011. If you have access to a more recent graph showing how both middle class income and union membership have fared over these last half dozen years, let me know.]

update: I was going to write something, here at the end of this post, about the people Trump has tapped to push forward his labor agenda, but, as luck would have it, I just happened across a new post at The Cap Times of Madison that said it better than I ever could. Here’s a clip.

…(Trump) has made that plain by assembling an administration that is packed with political grifters who have made it their business to defend sweatshops, depress wages and tip every balance toward multinational corporations.

Trump’s National Labor Relations Board picks — Marvin Kaplan and William Emanuel — have been greeted with scorn by advocates for a living wage and workplace fairness. As Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Emanuel during his confirmation hearing: “You have spent your career at one of the most ruthless, union-busting law firms in the country. How can Americans trust you will protect workers’ rights when you’ve spent 40 years fighting against them?”

Trump’s Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, has a miserable history of aligning with right-wing and corporate interests. After law school, Acosta clerked for Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Alito. Alito is now the U.S. Supreme Court’s aggressive foe of worker rights. Acosta, who served briefly as a George W. Bush appointee to the National Labor Relations Board, went on to face harsh criticism for the partisanship he displayed on voting rights cases while leading the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

As labor secretary, Acosta has remained on the wrong side. Just weeks ago, he appeared before the annual gathering of the militantly anti-labor American Legislative Exchange Council — along with anti-union zealot Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education.

Trump’s pick to serve as deputy secretary of labor, Patrick Pizzella, has an even more troubling record than Acosta. A former campaign staffer for Ronald Reagan who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, Pizzella was once employed by the viscerally anti-union National Right to Work Committee and later joined the firm that scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff was associated with before his 2006 conviction on federal charges that included attempted bribery.

When Alaska Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski proposed legislation to raise wages for workers in the Northern Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory that corporations used to get a “Made in the USA” label on sweatshop products, Pizzella lobbied for the sweatshop owners…

Speaking of sweatshops, today’s post was brought you by Ivanka Trump.

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7 Comments

  1. Jay Steichmann
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Us Chicago Germans with ties to the Knights & Ladies of Labor, the IWW, and the McCormick Reaper strike remember our Labor Day history.

  2. Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I wonder though if they even teach it in school anymore. I wouldn’t be surprised if conservative charters leave it out of the curriculum altogether.

  3. Jay Steichmann
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    They always taught it as the Haymarket Square Riot. Family legend has it that relatives who were rounded up in the post-festivities were able to alibi themselves as being out on the Indiana Dunes at the time. Playing with blasting caps, but whatever. The Chicago Historical Society had a very good history that should be taught in schools. Link to follow.

  4. Jay Steichmann
    Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, I’m shocked, not shocked. There used to be a nicely done, well detailed with artifacts history of the events that saw their proximate beginning with the killing of workers inside the McCormick reaper factory a few days before the labor unionists, anarchists and socialists called for a meeting in Haymarket Square. Now, all that exists on line are a variety of summaries, some which waffle and say “nobody knows” how this started, and others that say that the police were behind the escalating violence. Here’s one of the summaries. http://www.illinoislaborhistory.org/the-haymarket-affair/

  5. Posted September 3, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the Haymarket riot started in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The Pullman strike, which led immediately to the naming of Labor Day as a national holiday, came several years later, in 1894. Both were in Chicago, though, and both were on the same timeline, significant milestones on the path to the 40 work week, and everything we still enjoy today. I’m just concerned that people don’t realize what we’re risking when we roll back workers’ rights. They seem to think it’s impossible that we’d see things today, like children working in sweatshops, and people dying in dangerous factories. These things happened here, though. The Triangle fire happened. And we had children working in textile mills, and in mines. People need to realize that, unchecked, this is where capitalism can lead.

  6. Jcp2
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting to see the difference between Labor Day in here and Labour Day in Canada, where I grew up. We never were taught in school why Labour Day was, just that it signified the end of summer.

  7. Jay Steichmann
    Posted September 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Obviously, a lot of the labor history of that time was not taught in MY school in suburban Chicago. I think there was some mention of the Pullman strike and how that ended the practice of “company towns” at least in urban locations. I know of fruit picking farms stretching from Florida to North Carolina where the workers were essentially chattel. Company scrip, company stores, gated compounds & shotgun shacks. You could leave before the season was over, but not without intimidation and you left whatever pay you had accrued behind, because scrip was worthless on the “outside.” I know this practice was still happening in the mid 80s.

    And yes, the McCormick strike, Haymarket, and Pullman were all linked, or constellated as one of my profs preferred. Whether things are causally related or not, these people and events were nodes on a neural network rather than a linear graph. My grandfather was a unionist and pressman. His brother-in-law published a socialist newspaper in Kansas that carried columns by Upton Sinclair and Gene Debs. My great aunt Kate and great uncle Henry were friends of Debs in Indiana. You pull on one thread and see they are all linked.

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