This year will mark 134 years since the first Labor Day parade was held. In New York City, on September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Station. It was no paid holiday, but they did it to honor their fellow workers and to air some grievances with employers. Though more states held these parades over the coming years, it wasn’t until 1894 that Congress established Labor Day as a federal holiday. Unfortunately, it took blood being spilled to get them to do this.
Pullman, Illinois, was founded by railroad sleeping car manufacturer George Pullman as a city for his railroad workers. Built in 1880, the town was conceived as a kind of haven from the political and moral influence of Chicago, Illinois. All its residents worked for the Pullman company, drew paychecks drawn on Pullman’s bank, and even had their rent automatically deducted from their paychecks. Things were fine for a while until an economic depression hit the country in the early 1890’s. In 1893, to keep his business going, Pullman laid off hundreds of workers and cut the pay of those who remained. His mistake was that he also didn’t cut their rents, and workers were still getting the same amount deducted from their much smaller paychecks. Workers walked out demanding more pay and lower rents.
Along came Eugene V. Debs, head of the American Railway Union, and he helped them out by getting all railway workers across the nation to boycott trains pulling Pullman cars. This sent the entire nation into turmoil as riots broke out all over the country and delivery of mail was interrupted.
President Grover Cleveland acquiesced to the railroad execs. He declared the strike a federal crime and sent 12,000 troops to break it up. Before it was over, two people were killed by federal marshals. The strike was officially called to an end on August 3, 1894. Eugene Debs went to jail, and the ARU was disbanded. It was pretty much the end of unions until the Great Depression. The public, however, was unhappy with Cleveland’s handling of the strike, and to make good with the nation’s workers, and just six days after the strike ended, Congress rushed through a bill establishing Labor Day as a holiday and Cleveland signed it into law. But it was not enough to help him win re-election in 1894.
After the Korean War, nearly half of the nation’s workers were unionized, but today that number is down to about 15%. We all owe a debt of gratitude to unions and the workers willing to risk all by striking for better conditions. If you have Monday off as a holiday, you can thank the unions. If you have to work (I know what that’s like) and you get paid extra for doing so on a holiday, you can thank unions. If you have a forty-hour work week and have the opportunity to get overtime, you can thank unions. If you and your children went to school to learn, instead of a factory to work, you can thank unions.
Enjoy your holiday, and have a safe one while you’re at it.
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