Some background on Labor Day

pullmanstrikeOur last post was about the port labor negotiations going on in the West coast (read here).  Since Labor Day is around this time, we thought it would be interesting blog about Labor Day and its connection to a famous labor strike.

Labor Day is a national holiday celebrating the accomplishments of the American worker.   Labor Day first came into existence in February 21, 1887 when Oregon officially adopted it as a state holiday after witnessing the annual labour festival held in Toronto, Canada.   Labor Day was promoted by a couple of prominent labor unions and the first Labor Day parade took place in New York City.

By the time it became a Federal Holiday in 1894, 30 states were already celebrating Labor Day.   While it was probably a foregone conclusion that Labor Day would eventually become a federal holiday, the aftermath of a bitter and violent railroad strike (Pullman) actually accelerated the event.   In order to appease labor after the strike ended,   President Grover Cleveland and congress rushed through legislation in less than 6 days to make the holiday official.

The Pullman Strike

Pullman was a company that manufactured railroad cars.  It was based in Chicago and had a manufacturing center in Detroit.  George Pullman, the owner of the company created company housing areas where workers were charged rent.  At the time, these tenements were considered very modern with indoor bathrooms and running water.    George Pullman was extremely proud of his creation, believing that this concept was the going to be the trend of modern industrial society.

Problems started during the great depression when demand for his cars dropped.   He responded by cutting wages and laying off workers.    The workers bitterly complained because he did not reduce the housing rent.   The workers, who weren’t officially organized at the time, decided to go on strike.   The workers appealed for support to the American Railway Union (ARU), which tried to persuade the Pullman Company to agree to arbitration.  On May 11, 1894, when that tactic failed, the union announced that it would not work on any trains that had Pullman cars.     This tactic essentially shut down railroad traffic from Chicago all the way to parts of the Eastern Coast.    At this time, nearly 100% of commerce was shipped by railway including the US mail.

The Cleveland administration got a court injunction that declared the strike illegal, because of it shutting down the US mail.  When the strikers did not comply with the injunction, non union labor was brought in.    This lead to violent demonstrations by the Union; Federal troops were brought in and the violence worsened.  Several strikers were killed by the troops in one of several violent confrontations mainly occurring in Chicago but spread to other areas.

Eventually the strikers went back to work, most of them getting their normal wages.   While public opinion was generally against the strikers, the public was appalled by the tactics of the troops.  Many unions were publically condemning the actions of the soldiers.    President Cleveland pushed forward legislation to make Labor Day a Federal holiday in hopes that this would help sooth bitter feelings in the aftermath o f the strike.   Six days later the bill was enacted.

One other note about Labor Day, it was initially proposed to be on May 1st, which at the time corresponded to international workers day.  Grover Cleveland decided to change it to September 1st because he was afraid that it would be associated with the Haymarket Massacre, another violent labor confrontation that occurred May 4, 1886.   He did not want a national holiday being used to commemorate a dark and embarrassing time in US labor relations.