Labor Day and the growth of U.S. Socialism

Eugene Debs, radically changed while serving time in prison for defying President Grover Cleveland during the Pullman Strike, only to become a prominent Socialist. Debs must be proud indeed. Photo: Public domain - Campaign poster from his 1912 Presidential campaign, featuring Debs and Vice Presidential candidate Emil Seidel

SAN JOSE, September 3, 2012— In the hot summer months of 1894, in the midst of the worst economic Depression prior to the Great Depression, an American Railway Union strike spread from Chicago to St. Louis and quickly swept through the entire country like a wildfire in dry summer heat.

At its peak, the ARU strike, led by union leader Eugene V. Debs, exploded to include 250,000 workers across 27 states and managed to cripple the nation’s rail transportation.

The epicenter of the strike was in Pullman, Illinois, at George Pullman’s Palace Car Company (a railroad sleeping car manufacturing company) where many of the company’s remaining workers (following severe layoffs) were protesting the lowering of their wages while rents in Pullman (paid to George Pullman) remained unchanged . Pullman was most likely in a position of hoping to save his company and his worker’s utopia.  

But, Pulman was stubborn and wanted to sacrifice as little as possible.  He handled the employees’s situation poorly and reduced wages but not his rents. His attempt to keep too much backfired.

The Pullman Strike was one of the more dramatic representations of the fallout from a severely weakened economy. The Depression had consumed many previously healthy businesses through the winter of 1894-94. In Pullman’s town, of the original 12,000 employees working prior to the drastic drop off in orders for the train cars, approximately 3300 workers were retained on payroll.

They disputed the inequitable compensation and organized a strike which began on May 11th. Negotiations proved to be irreconcilable.

In June, the American Railway Union, probably the most powerful labor union in America at the time, voted to conduct a strike to support the Pullman workers. At their convention in Chicago, they committed to boycott Pullman cars. From June 26th, under the leadership of Debs, ARU members all across the country refused to handle any Pullman cars and other cars attached to Pullman cars.

The strike shut down any train attempting to move through either Chicago or St. Louis.

By the end of June, 125,000 laborers working for 29 different railroads were involved in the boycott of the Pullman cars. At its peak, the strike involved 250,000 workers throughout 27 states. But what originated as a boycott, drastically morphed into mob violence. Eugene Debs visited Blue Island, Illinois to hold a peaceful rally on June 29th, in order to strengthen support for the strike. The strikers turned violent after this rally and destroyed the railroad yards, setting fire to buildings and trains and any easy target.

The widespread labor unrest gained nationwide attention as well as the attention of President Grover Cleveland because it not only concerned nervous railroad executives, it also alarmed the general public and stimulated demand for government intervention. Cleveland appointed a special counsel to investigate and eventually the Attorney General, Richard Olney, obtained an injunction against the strike on July 2nd decreeing that the actions of obstructing the U.S. Mail should cease and declaring such obstruction a federal crime. President Cleveland called upon U.S. Marshalls to enforce the injunction.

The injunction also allowed for federal troops to intervene to ensure the free movement of the mail and to re-establish the flow of commerce. Upon learning this the following day, mobs attacked and torched trains. One train outside of Chicago was even derailed. Violence escalated and two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago. On July 3rd, strikers managed to drag baggage cars across train tracks to block any cars carrying mail.

On the 4th of July, the president deployed 12,000 U.S. Army troops to end the violent clashes between the strikers and local authorities and to restore order. On July 6th, a mob stoned a train, killing the engineer and injuring many passengers. Violence spread to many cities and the public became impatient. At this time, the AFL and Samuel Gompers, as well as the various Railroad brotherhoods, opposed the ARU strike and denounced the sabotage and rioting. An editorial, printed in the New York Times on July 9th, labeled Eugene Debs “…a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race…” Later the strike became commonly referred to as “Deb’s Rebellion.”

Fortunately, it was not too long before the Army managed to take control of the unruly mobs. Debs and three additional union leaders were arrested on July 10th for interfering with the delivery of U. S. mail. The Army could withdraw by July 19th. But sadly, before the strike officially ended on August 3rd, approximately 30 people, including 13 strikers, had been killed, and in all, 57 people had been injured or wounded. Mobs caused about $340,000 (equivalent to roughly $80 million today) of property damage.

Within six days of the strike’s end, Democrat President Grover Cleveland signed a bill that that recognized Labor Day as an official U.S. holiday. The bill had been rushed through Congress and had received bipartisan support and was unanimously approved. Some historians have made the claim that Cleveland attempted to use the Labor Day legislation to help his efforts to win re-election by mollifying big labor, but they neglect to mention that the presidential election would not have occurred until 1896. It was an election year – for many members of Congress.

By union objectives the Pullman Strike was somewhat successful because the American Railway Union, joined by non-union mobs, managed to stifle the mobility of most trains throughout the Midwest to make their point. However, the American Railway Union managed to alienate the general public and cripple interstate commerce in an already devastated economy.

Nevertheless, the Pullman Strike radicalized Eugene Debs, and after his arrest, he served six months in prison. During his incarceration, he studied the writings of Karl Marx and came to believe that American workers would not get what they deserved until through elections they could eventually gain control of governmental power themselves and then they could begin the process of replacing capitalism with socialism.

President Grover Cleveland had successfully restored order as he ended the strike that affected the overall welfare of American citizens, but in the process he had angered one of the largest blocks of voters in the nation, and consequently he had alienated many in his party. Especially John Altgeld, the governor of Illinois and John Hopkins, the mayor of Chicago, were outraged when he sent troops into Chicagoland. Being too conservative for the Democratic Party, they refused to support Cleveland’s hopes for re-election.

The irony was that Eugene Victor Debs did get to run for president – several times. In the aftermath of that turbulent summer of 1894, Eugene Debs went on to become one of the leading socialists of his time, even running for president from his jail cell in the 1920 election. Since then, the Socialists have morphed into many organizations from that time until now, with different names and faces taking the place of Debs in a bid for president. But they could never get what they “deserved” until they finally secured control of the major political party that had once been their most hated adversary. Eugene V. Debs must now be proud indeed.

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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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