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 over 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.


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.

update: OK, it’s present day again, and Donald Trump has said that he’ll be blocking pay raises for all federal employees. It would appear that, in his opinion, there’s just not enough money to make cost-of-living increases possible. [Trump said that austerity, at least with regard to this issue, is necessary in order to “put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course.”] I know what you’re thinking… How is it possible that we don’t have any money, as we were told that the GOP’s $1 trillion corporate tax cut would essentially pay for itself, as the economy would grow, and offset any short term losses with regard to federal revenue? Well, that never happened. The Republicans slashed corporate taxes, telling us that we’d all see big pay raises, and assuring us that we wouldn’t see cuts to federal programs. And pretty much the opposite happened. According to the most recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal deficit is going to grow by another $804 billion in fiscal 2018. And worker pay didn’t rise – it fell, as companies, for the most part, decided not to invest their newfound wealth by investing in their people and their facilities, but instead used it to buy back stock, increasing shareholder wealth. Here’s just one of many charts from Bloomberg about the screwing of the American worker post-Trump. The blue line represents the hourly wage of the American worker.

Now that the American workers are beginning to wake to the lie of Trumpism, and the fact that it was never really about lifting up “the forgotten Americans,” but further enriching the members of the American oligarchy, there seems to be something of a correction underway, with momentum building on the left. And all the Republicans seem capable of saying in response is, “Socialism!“, as though the negative connotation of that single word might in itself be enough to make those losing their jobs and their healthcare say to their hungry kids, “Well, at least we aren’t evil socialists.” But, really, that’s all the Republicans now have. They’ve got fear of Socialism, and overt racism. Their bag of tricks is otherwise empty.

Here, if you don’t want to take my word for it, is Congressman Adam Schiff telling it like it is.

So, yeah, every little thing our ancestors fought for back in the late 1800s is going to have to be fought for again, against adversaries with more to lose, and more weapons at their disposal.. Good luck, friends.

[note: All of the above was posted a few years ago on Labor Day. I’m sure, since it was posted, there have been other serious assaults to the rights of American workers, all of which should be included here. Unfortunately, though, I have designated today my Annual Day of Yard Work, and I’m already behind schedule. If you have items that you think should be added to this litany of assaults, please leave a comment.]

This entry was posted in History, Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted September 7, 2020 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    So, no one wants to discuss this?

  2. Jason N.
    Posted September 7, 2020 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    I don’t like the union income graph, because it suggests correlation = causation. Surely this has been well-studied by now (and more rigorously?).

    I didn’t know much about the Chicago–ARU incident; I found that interesting.

    I spent my Labor Day relaxing, and ended my evening at your new restaurant, which I absolutely loved! I will be back again

  3. John Brown
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Support the GEO strike against the trumpian Weiser and Schlissel. Do not cross the picket and give your labor to Umich right now.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    It’s a very socialist holiday.

  5. iRobert
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Voting rights are being lost rapidly.

    The last remaining power the average person has now is as a consumer. But almost nobody has the sense to use that power effectively. Collectively, working class consumers could dramatically shift the direction of the entire society.

    You vote with every purchase you make. If you aren’t taking action for change regarding your decisions as a consumer, you are the problem you’re complaining about.

  6. Wobblie
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Aloha iRobert, many “consumer” actions are illegal. Secondary boycotts for example.
    I see where the WSJ headline today is, we have fallen below 25000 new trumpvirus cases. This is the first time since the Memorial Day holiday surge in cases (jun12) that we have fewer than 25000 new infections. The Sturgis super spreader event will be hitting just in time for the Labor Day holiday. Expect a surge in new infections to start hitting the er’s in another two weeks. MAGA

  7. Hyborian Warlord
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Did the unions drive the auto industry right out of Michigan or not?

  8. Anonymous
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I take it that you are not one to observe Labor Day. Do you observe Memorial Day or Christmas Day? Independence Day? Thanksgiving Day?

  9. Posted September 8, 2020 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    My problem is that putting the onus on the consumer requires a lot of time doing research on the consumer’s part. That is fine for rich white folks in places like Ann Arbor but others may not have the resources to devote to such things. Which of course is why organized boycotts are a useful tool but even then I have noticed that if the Left or Right organizes a boycott, the other side takes action to minimize the effect of the organized boycott by increasing their purchasing. Consumer action really only matters when a super-majority of consumers align on something. And then usually not as a result of an organized boycott but more about their brand being tarnished.

  10. Posted September 8, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    FWIW, I think unions are a wonderful thing but I also think that we have seen the limitations of unions. I really think that the best way forward is not unions but a UBI since a UBI would really give workers more power with their employers.

  11. all those who died in the Chicago rail yards
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Again, you’re welcome, Mark. It was our pleasure.

  12. iRobert
    Posted September 8, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Mark. We’re not interested in this topic. But hopefully we’ll be getting a lengthy essay on Nancy Pelosi’s salon appointment from FF.

  13. Nobody
    Posted September 9, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I am interested in this topic. Just short on time. What is happening right now with the talk of consolidating the Boeing 787 production is astonishingly short sighted.

    Boeing moved their headquarters from Seattle to Chicago a few years back, which was a physical manifestation of the separation between management and workers. They opened up a plant in South Carolina, a right to work state, around the same time. Now they are talking about consolidating the 787 production in South Carolina and shutting down the Everett plant. The machinist union out here is rightfully pissed.

    Boeing management is making some really poor decisions that are going to have a cascading effect not only on the machinists here, but on all of the hundreds of small job shops that support aerospace and many other industries and small businesses out here. There are an amazing number of people out here that have specialized skills and currently employ them. I don’t know how to emphasize the importance of this enough. If these job shops go out of business, theses skilled laborers idle and find other work…. and that unique skill they have to offer is lost. I have met people out here that have knowledge of materials and manufacturing that is unbelieveable. WHat they contribute to our economy in the way of expertise and entrepreneurship is immeasurable.

    And Boeing is actively dismantling this industrial ecosystem out here because of their management’s insistence that they know better. They know shit. Henry Ford required every person employed at Ford to first work the line. He wanted everyone in the company to understand production, materials, design, etc. That ethos is out the window now.

    I talk with some of these machinists and subcontractor shops out here. They see the piss poor decisions that management is making and the results, but there is no mechanism for their concerns to be heard… Boeing management is sinking their ship.


  14. Posted September 9, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Nobody, unfortunately, we have a system that incentivizes short-term gain over the long-term health of the company. But of course, that is one area where unions can actually have a positive impact on the bottom line but alas, they are a bit weak these days. Still, a strong union has a pretty big incentive to make the long-term health of a company a priority when they negotiate contracts.

  15. Nobody
    Posted September 9, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Lynne –

    Unions are just as capable of acting in their own interest and to the detriment of the craft their members exercise. Take the police unions for example.

    There are examples out there of companies that are employee owned, which eliminates the need for unions as they are stakeholders on both sides of the typical Union / Management negotiations. This seems like a much better model. James Couzens, while treasurer of Ford back at the beginning, convinced Ford to reduce the work day to 8 hours and to pay the workers $5 a day, more than double the prior wage. That stopped costly turnover in its tracks and provided workers some of that pay in stocks. It also brought in the most skilled workers from the labor pool. The downside was his sociological department paid unexpected visits to make sure they were not spending their money on vices. Couzens went on to be a US Senator and a lot of his ideas were incorporated into the New Deal.

    Ford’s first job was working for Frank Kirby at Detroit Dry Docks on Atwater. They designed, built, and repaired boats there. Ford learned many different trades there at a time that the old master / apprentice system was still alive. They were problem solvers. The scale of work at that time allowed for these guild systems to keep going. Unfortunately, one of the problems that Ford was obsessed with was the idea of interchangeable parts. His solving of that problem led to mass production, which in turn led to the destruction of the guild system and the smaller scale economies that supported them, along with the agency, problem solving attitude, and the grit to get things done. Ford even made workers interchangeable with the help of Frederick Taylor.

    Ford later in life felt the weight of what he helped destroy…the small scale local economies, the guild systems, and the agency and purpose they brought to the people. He tried piloting a program along the Rouge River using old mill ponds to make new factories that were hydropowered and employed local farmers during the off season, along with widows of WW1 soldiers ( Phoenix plant in Plymouth ) and wounded WW1 soldiers ( plant at Cherry Hill and Ridge ). It was not profitable. His collections at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are a manifestation of his concern that he destroyed something important.. all the crafts and ingenuity prior to parts standardization and mass production.

    There are still companies in the US that somehow have managed to preserve crafts and managed to find a balance, but it ain’t easy. Some of the larger of them are still subject to forced buyouts and restructuring that breaks the golden thread of apprentice / master that allows for smooth transition from one generation to the next. One improbable example of this is the Beetle Cat sailboat that has been manufactured in wood continuously for over 100 years.

    I apparently have a lot to say on this, but it is getting long and I should be working.

  16. iRobert
    Posted September 9, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Lynne: “My problem is that putting the onus on the consumer requires a lot of time doing research on the consumer’s part. That is fine for rich white folks in places like Ann Arbor but others may not have the resources to devote to such things.”

    Those who don’t have lots of time to do the research can benefit from those who do. I know many very busy people who have taken the responsibility for what they purchase and what interests they are financing in doing so.

  17. Wobblie
    Posted September 10, 2020 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    I spent most of my first 20 years in the workforce laboring in worker owned and or worker managed enterprises. It should not be a surprise that workers need unions in these establishments just as in traditional workplaces.

    Unions not only provide a mechanism for furthering the interest of workers as a collective, it also provided connections to other workers similarly situated. This connection to other workers outside pf your workplace is a key aspect of unions. For who will defend an individual worker against the arbitrary and capricious actions of a majority , other than the union. Disciplining and holding workers accountable is just as important if not more so in a self-managed workplace, unions ensure that due process, transparency and uniformity in these areas are maintained.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Ark of Maynard