To learn the real story behind Labor Day, we’ll travel back in time more than a hundred years, to the late 1890’s in the United States. It was a far different time with different problems, and the plight of the average working class person was so destitute, it’s almost unimaginable to us now.
These wealthy families and industrialists controlled everything – including the politicians, who were in their pockets. The Federal government still had very little authority and involvement in state affairs – that came in play around the Great Depression and the New Deal, and the comfortable, educated, and upwardly-mobile middle class created after World War II was still just a dream. (To get an idea of working class conditions during those times, read The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.)
The notion of labor rights and even a national day for labor causes had already been championed; by Matthew Maguire, a machinist with the Central Labor Union of New York, or by Peter Mcguire of the American Federation of Labor in 1882. Most profiles on Labor Day start there, for good reason. But the reality was still that the short lives of most working class men and women consisted of incalculable labor and suffering, and little else. There was no place this was more of a reality than the dreaded Pullman Town area of South Chicago around 1890s.
The Pullman Railroad Car Company, owned by George Pullman, one of the wealthiest men in America, took advantage of Western expansion and the dawning of industrialization by turning his railroad company into a monopoly unparalleled in U.S. history. To keep profits pouring in and workers under thumb, he created a small town filled with his workers and their families in a suburb of Chicago. The workers were just about forced to live there and Pullman owned (and profited from) everything – their apartments and rooming houses, the food markets, the stores, and even the churches and the libraries. They worked all day at abysmal wages and unsafe conditions just to line his coffers and then owed him more just to sleep and eat once they came home. It was essentially a duplication of the medieval feudal systems that plagued Europe centuries earlier. Pullman was the King, and all the workers in his town were indentured servants.
One sweat and coal-faced worker described it best when he said, “We’re born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, blessed in a Pullman church, and when we die, we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to Pullman Hell.”
Bad went to worse when the Pullman Railroad Car Company, responding to the country’s severe depression – the Panic of 1983 - cut all worker wages by 25% in one felled swoop, just to maintain their profits. They did not, however, lower rents or any other costs of living in the Pullman Town.
The Pullman workers finally responded, going on strike on May 11, 1894 - 4,000 factory workers strong laying down their tools at once and walking off the job. It’s important to note that strikes were not common place in those days – there were no widespread labor unions, workers rights, or even child safety laws, and meetings or protests among workers were often broken up with hired thugs, leading to mob violence, houses burnt to the ground, and even murder – all that went unpunished. Sure enough, after a short time, the Pullman workers began to break ranks, faced with the unbearable pressure of having to feed their families with no wages.
Coming to the aid of their embattled brothers, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, ordered a full-scale boycott across the country as a show of support. By the summer of 1894, all rail travel in the country came to a virtual standstill as 125,000 railroad workers across 27 states joined the strike in protest of the Pullman Company.
Debs and the American Railway Union solicited for federal intervention to arbitrate worker conditions. They got their wish when the federal courts stepped in, but unfortunately, Pullman’s influence and the threat of worker collusion led to a decision in favor of the railroads, not labor, backed by the logic that the strike was blocking the transport of federal property since the mail train cards could not get through. The federal courts issued injunctions, calling for all strikes to cease and banning them as unlawful.
To back the court ruling, President Grover Cleveland sent troops and U.S. Marshalls to Chicago to quell the strike - the epicenter of the railroad industry. Interestingly enough, Chicago, Illinois governor John Pete Altgeld refused to intervene, even as violence broke out.
The spark that changed U.S. history came in May 4, 1886, known now as the Haymarket Massacre. Workers gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square for a peaceful protest in favor of an 8-hour workday, but were met with aggressive federal troops who ordered the protest to end. The gathering turned violent when someone threw a stick of dynamite into the crowd of police, though we still don’t know who it was. The police responded by mercilessly beating workers with clubs and shooting unarmed protestors. Within only a few minutes, eight people had been killed and over 120 police and civilians injured – most of them victims of police vigilantism.
The police and troops arrested eight men from the labor side they charged with conspiracy to commit murder, calling them anarchists. The arrest and trial was a farce, as there was no evidence against them and the police had sparked the riot, not the civil protestors. The eight men, David to the Goliath of the railroad companies, government, judges, and police, faced a kangaroo court that included one juror who was a relative of a policeman killed in Haymarket Square. Even the newspapers, controlled by the rich industrialists, swayed the tide of public sentiment against the workers. They played upon the public fear of immigrant and minority strikers, labeling them as criminals, socialists, and anarchists, and conceded that true American patriotism was to side with the troops and the government (and corrupt big business.)
Oscar Neebe, who gave this historic testimony at the trial that illuminated the worker’s plight:
“I saw the bakers in the city were treated like dogs. I helped organize them. That is a great crime. The men are now working ten hours a day instead of 14 or 16 hours…that is another crime. And I committed an even greater crime than that. I saw in the morning when I drove away with my team that the beer brewers of the city went to work at 4 o’clock in the morning. They came home at 7 or 8 o’clock at night…they never saw their families or children by daylight. I worked to organize them. That is a great crime.”
Of the seven sentenced to death, two had their sentenced commuted to life in prison by the Illinois Governor. One committed suicide in jail instead of being hanged at the gallows, but on November 11, 1887, four more were hanged to death.
One of the original eight “anarchists,” Eugene Debs was defended by pro-labor attorney Clarence Darrow, who achieved even higher recognition four decades later in 1925, during the famous Scopes Monkey Trail that argued Creationism versus Evolution in our school system (read Inherit the Wind some time.) Darrow laid the foundation for future labor activism when he argued:
“This is a historic case which will count much for liberty or against liberty. The charge of conspiracy, from the days of tyranny in England down to the day George Pullman used it as a club, has been the favorite weapon of every tyrant. It is an effort to punish the crime of thought….It is an effort to keep the powerless in chains, by denying them the right to make up in numbers what they lack in wealth. Oh, there is a dark conspiracy here, have no doubt of that. There is a conspiracy against Eugene Debs, a conspiracy sinister and far-reaching. The conspirators are George Pullman and the legislators he buys; the conspirators are the courts, which twist and warp our laws to protect the guilty; the conspirators are the soldiers and the police, who use deadly means against those whose only crime is to be hungry.”
Despite the grand oration and lack of evidence against the men, Debs was sentenced to prison for six months on charges of federal obstruction of the mail under the Sherman Antitrust Act. In jail, he devoured the works of Karl Marx and later became America’s most prominent socialist, even gaining a seat in the Indiana Senate and running for President on that political ideology, though he was ostracized and spent most of the latter part of his life in and out of prison for his beliefs, before dying in a sanatorium.
In Chicago and among sympathizing communities, there were more riots, fires, protests, shootings, and crackdowns, leading to 34 more deaths and $80 million of property damage. Eventually the strike was broken, but it wasn’t a resounding victory for Pullman and big business. President Cleveland, in an effort to placate organized labor after the strike and the boycott, designated a new federal holiday, Labor Day. It was pushed through Congress within only six days of the railway strike’s end.
Despite the temporary defeat in Chicago the spark that led to Labor Day would not extinguish. As they say, “there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” and the plight of the average worker was fanned to a blaze by many courageous activists over the next century – not only Neebe, Debs and Darrow but labor-rights icons Albert and Lucy Parsons, John L. Lewis, Mother Jones, Cesar Chavez, Jane Addams, Samuel Gompers, Rudy Lozano, Joe Hill, A. Phillip Randolph, and Addie Wyatt.
Starting with those Pullman strikes and the Haymarket Square riots, we achieved an America where workers have a Constitutional right to fair wages, reasonable hours, safe conditions, and freedom from harassment. We now have rights that free us from abuse and exploitation by employers. We can now organize and meet freely, and elect for trade unions to be our advocates. There are now federal protections that free us from child labor, minority discrimination, and exclusion of disabled people in the workplace. Because those men and women stood up against Pullman in 1893, even facing the wrath of government courts, media headlines, and police clubs, we don’t have to. We now have our own national holiday to commemorate their sacrifices, a dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.
So remember them in gratitude this Labor Day, and feel proud.