Labor Day's painful origins

 Labor Day was born in the wake of some of the most turbulent labor unrest in our country’s history. Photo: Labor Day NYC c.1882

SAN JOSE, September 5, 2011—As people across the country pause to take note of Labor Day many may be surprised to learn that the first Monday in September became an officially sanctioned federal holiday in the aftermath of some of the most turbulent labor unrest in the history of the United States.  

Fortunate Americans who have jobs in today’s economy, and who may be enjoying a three-day weekend, may find it difficult to relate to the dramatic events that forged this national holiday.  To those currently unemployed that have no job to return to on Tuesday, it may be easier to comprehend the origins of this end of summer holiday.   

The first significant Labor Day parade occurred in 1882, years before city and state governments passed legislation dedicated to remembering the contributions of the workers in building this nation. The federal holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September became law partly because Congress and President Grover Cleveland hastily reacted to a union strike turned violent that had crippled the country’s railways. 

The bill creating the Labor Day holiday was rushed unanimously through Congress near the end of summer in 1894 and was reportedly signed by Cleveland only six days after U.S. Marshalls, along with approximately 12,000 U.S. Army troops, were called in to end violent clashes between striking railway workers and local authorities.  The strike was no simple matter of disgruntled employees demanding higher wages and is viewed as a classic battle between labor and management or between labor and government.  

Months after the Panic of 1893 plunged the United States into economic depression, the Pullman Strike represents the dramatic fallout from a severely weakened economy.  

The Pullman Palace Car Company, which constructed passenger sleeper cars for trains, became one of many successful businesses that began to struggle financially.  As orders for train cars declined, owner George Pullman was forced to lay off a majority of his workers and cut the wages of remaining employees.          

The twist in this saga is that George Pullman was also the landlord for his workers as he had built the town of Pullman for approximately 12,000 residents as a sort of worker’s utopia outside of Chicago, Illinois.  When the depression persisted, Pullman workers saw wages lowered during the winter of 1893-94, but Pullman refused to lower rents. 

Disputing the inequitable compensation for approximately 3300 workers who were left on payroll, the union organized a strike beginning on May 11th which became irreconcilable. 

The American Railway Union, likely the most powerful union of the time, held its national convention in Chicago in June that year and voted to boycott railroad business in sympathy for the Pullman employees.  ARU members refused to handle any Pullman cars or other railroad cars connected to them.  The strike spread from Chicago to St. Louis and stifled the mobility of most trains throughout the Midwest, crippling interstate commerce in an already devastated economy.   

Like a wildfire in August, the strike kept growing out of control.  From June 26, 1894 under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, ARU members across the country refused to switch Pullman cars onto any trains.  By the end of June, 125,000 laborers working for 29 different railroads refused to handle Pullman cars.  At its peak, the strike swelled to include 250,000 workers across 27 states. 

Such widespread labor unrest stimulated public demand for government action.  President Cleveland responded by appointing a special counsel to investigate and eventually obtained an injunction against the strike on July 2nd due to obstruction of the U.S. Mail and paralysis of the country’s commerce.  The following day, mobs attacked and torched trains.  One train outside of Chicago was even derailed.  The president called upon the U.S. Army to enforce the injunction and restore order.  

Unfortunately, violence escalated on July 6th as a mob stoned a train, killing the engineer and injuring many passengers.  On July 9th, an editorial in the New York Times labeled Debs “…a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race…” as the strike was commonly referred to as “Deb’s Rebellion.”  Eventually, the Army took control of the unruly mobs was able to withdraw by July 19th.  

Before the strike officially ended on August 3rd, 13 strikers had lost their lives and 57 had been wounded.  The mobs caused about $340,000 (equivalent to millions of dollars today) of property damage. 

In the aftermath of the turbulent summer of 1894, Eugene Debs went to prison and during his incarceration, studied the writings of Karl Marx.  Debs went on to become one of the leading socialists of his time, running for president numerous times.  

Ironically, Grover Cleveland never got another chance to run for president.  

Some historians claim that Cleveland attempted to use the labor Day legislation to help  his efforts to win re-election by reconciliation with big labor, but the presidential election was two years away.

Angering the labor movement and spouting economic policies too conservative for the Democratic Party, the  Democrats refused to support a bid for re-election.  The real irony is that Grover Cleveland ran against Benjamin Harrison in 1892 truly determined to reverse the economic problems that he claimed Harrison instigated.  

Sadly, Grover Cleveland could not resolve the nation’s economic problems and even the creation of Labor Day could not solve his own problems.  


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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