2012-09-12

The Origin of Labor Day

The stock market crash of 1893 brought a depression in which 150 railroads closed and unemployment was massive. George Pullman cut his workers' wages by 25 percent, but did not reduce rents in the town of Pullman at all.

The next year, 1894, 4,000 Pullman employees went on a wildcat strike: "wildcat" because it wasn’t authorized by the workers’ trade union officials, and that was because they didn’t have any trade union officials because Pullman didn’t allow labor unions. Then organizers for Eugene Debs' American Railway Union came in and signed up many of the striking workers, and the Pullman strike spread. Soon 100,000 railroad workers across the country were refusing to handle trains with Pullman cars.

The strike shut down much of the nation's freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit. Various sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking the replacement workers the railroads sought to hire. At its peak, the strike involved 250,000 workers in 27 states.

Artist's rendering of the clash between striking Pullman workers and federal troops.
Pullman called up his friend and fellow railroad director, United States Attorney General Richard Olney. With President Grover Cleveland's backing, troops were sent to Chicago. The federal government secured a federal court injunction against the union, Debs, and the top leaders ordering them to stop interfering with trains that carried mail cars. They refused. The Army moved in to stop the strikers from obstructing the trains. Violence broke out in a number of cities: millions of dollars in damages and 30 people were killed.

The Army broke the strike. Debs went to prison for violating a court order. The railroads fired and black-listed all the employees who had supported the strike. As soon as the strike was over and the trains were running, President Cleveland and Congress moved quickly to make conciliation to organized labor.

Six days after the 1894 Pullman strike ended, legislation was pushed through Congress declaring that the first Monday of September was a Federal holiday, Labor Day. So we have Labor Day as a consolation prize after the Feds sent in troops to protect corporate interests and break up a strike. It was a bone to try to head off further conflict. And they put it in September, instead of giving official recognition to the more widely known International Workers Day on May 1, because they wanted to pull attention away from the more radical labor movements.

Every Labor Day, let us remember this story of the origin of the holiday. The story of conflict between "management" (the wealthy, the controllers of capital) and people whose labor they want to make use of (slaves, indentured servants, laborers) is the central and on-going story of our country. This is who we are as a people.

Labor Union membership peaked in the 1940s and 50s, and has been declining ever since. The number of working poor has been climbing. The percentage of all workers whose incomes fall below the poverty threshold was 4.7% in 2000, and rose to 7.2% by 2010. On the weekend for celebrating labor, let’s remember those who labor but whose pay is so low that they remain in poverty.

The story of George Pullman is of particular salience to us Unitarian Universalists. This is our story, quite specifically. You see, George Pullman was one of us in a very direct sense. George Pullman was a Universalist: born, raised, and lifelong.

George’s father, raised a Baptist, and his mother, raised Presbyterian, converted to Universalism, drawn to the “God is Love” message of the Universalist minister Thomas Eaton. George's Dad often led the services when no preacher was available.

The Pullmans were a devotedly, devoutly, Universalist family. Both of George’s two older brothers became Universalist ministers and were prominent figures in our faith. Late in his life, George Pullman had a Universalist church built in his hometown, Albion, New York, as a memorial to his parents.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Going Into Labor"

Next: Part 4: "The Cruelty of Ideals and the Labor of Homecoming"
Previous: Part 2: "Pullman, Illinois"
Beginning: Part 1: "Labor"