Skip to content

Why do we celebrate Labor Day anyway?

Pullman Strikers outside Arcade building
I’m enjoying my labor day off, but the day means more than just a time for us hard working people to have a little rest. Turns out that the Pullman Strike that made it hard for Irena and Semus to make it back to Durango in the end of ‘Longing for Home’ was the catalyst for the Labor Day holiday.

Pullman car ‘Christine’
Workers at the 1890s Pullman Palace Car Company factory made high end railway cars for the rich and famous. Working for George Pullman wasn’t a bad job for the 1890s. However, workers were required to live in the Pullman housing and were paid in script that was only good in the company stores and for paying their rent. It was an arrangement that made the workers dependent on the company. Arrangements like Pullman’s were common in industry and mining during the 1800s.

Pullman Town
It was a good thing for Irena and Seamus that when they first moved to Chicago they chose to work in meat packing instead of for Pullman. They suffered during the depression of the 1890s, but they weren’t trapped like the Pullman workers. George Pullman saw his profits dropping and cut his worker’s pay nearly 30%, but didn’t cut their rents or the prices in his stores.

 

Workers tried to meet with Pullman, but he refused. The Pullman workers had the sympathy of most of Chicago. Other business magnates urged George Pullman to talk to his men and even the Chicago police took up a collection to assist the workers.

On May 11th 1893 the Pullman workers went on strike. The Mayor of Chicago, John Hopkins, wasn’t a fan of George Pullman and so didn’t step into stop the unrest. Many of the Pullman workers were members of the American Railway Union (ARU). ARU members across the country refused to handle Pullman cars or service trains that had Pullman cars until the companies severed ties with Pullman, essentially shutting down all rail traffic. The strike lasted from May 11th until July 20th. While the Mayor of Chicago and the Governor of Illinois were pro-labor, the railway owners and President Grover Cleveland were not.

In an unprecedented move, President Cleveland ordered troops into Chicago, over the objection of the Governor and the Mayor, on July 3rd. Strikers acted out by rioting. The troops served as a flash point for laborers who had worked for decades under severely oppressive circumstances. The riots spread across Chicago and on July 7th National Guardsmen shot into the crowds, killing 30 and injuring dozens more. The strikes eventually calmed, though labor tensions remained.

National Guard Firing on Pullman workers
There is disagreement about if President Cleveland was really the guiding force behind the Labor Day declaration. At any rate, just six days after the end of the strike, he signed the bill designating the first Monday of September as Labor Day. I’m not sure it appeased the workers.

I hope you enjoyed a little something to think about while you spent a short holiday at the end of your summer.

Published inGeneral

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.