October 29, 2020

The Origin of Labor Day | A holiday for some

If you work in retail or the restaurant business or any other service-related industry, and many trades as well that never get a holiday like plumbing, then you probably don’t realize that today is Labor Day. I have serious beef with Labor Day. Every year since I have owner the store people with “real jobs” always ask me what I am doing for Labor Day. My first response is “When is Labor Day?” And then my second response is – “working” because when the masses have a vacation they want to shop. The irony is pretty serious, a store named Proletariat open on Labor Day, a holiday created for the Proletariat. Well, this Labor Day I decided to at least drop some knowledge on what Labor Day is all about and how it came to be, and as always, we will be open 12-8 tomorrow so make sure you come by so our time isn’t in vain.

From Wikipedia: The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City. It became a federal holiday in 1894, when, following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with the labor movement as a top political priority.

The Pullman Strike was a nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads that occurred in the United States in 1894. The conflict began in the town of Pullman, Illinois on May 11 when approximately 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company began a wildcat strike in response to recent reductions in wages, bringing traffic west of Chicago to a halt. The American Railway Union, the nation’s first industry-wide union, led by Eugene V. Debs, subsequently became embroiled in what The New York Times described as “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital” that involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states at its peak.

During the economic panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demands for their train cars plummeted and the company’s revenue dropped. A delegation of workers complained of the low wages and twelve-hour workdays, and that the corporation that operated the town of Pullman didn’t decrease rents, but company owner George Pullman “loftily declined to talk with them.”

Many of the workers were already members of the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott in which union members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. The strike effectively shut down production in the Pullman factories and led to a lockout. Railroad workers across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars (and subsequently Wagner Palace cars) onto trains. The ARU declared that if switchmen were disciplined for the boycott, the entire ARU would strike in sympathy.

The boycott was launched on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars. Adding fuel to the fire the railroad companies began hiring replacement workers (that is, strikebreakers), which only increased hostilities.

On June 29, 1894, Debs hosted a peaceful gathering to obtain support for the strike from fellow railroad workers at Blue Island, Illinois. Afterward groups within the crowd became enraged and set fire to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive. Elsewhere in the United States, sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking strikebreakers. This increased national attention to the matter and fueled the demand for federal action.

The railroads were able to get Richard Olney, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, appointed as a special federal attorney with responsibility for dealing with the strike. Olney obtained an injunction barring union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers cease their activities or face being fired. Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called into action.

The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail, ignored a federal injunction and represented a threat to public safety. The arrival of the military and subsequent deaths of workers led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage (about $8,818,000 adjusted for inflation to 2010).

Now, I know how we all celebrate Labor Day. Eating a ton, drinking even more, and having a good time. Take a moment this Labor Day and be glad that we aren’t working 12 hour days, getting paid nothing, and living pay check to pay check. Oh wait….

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