Strait on: Blood, sweat and violent deaths – the history of Labor Day

Photo of the Chicago Historical Society
Drawing of the National Guard firing on Pullman strikers, 1894 from Harper’s Weekly.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

Labor Day is celebrated in the United States as a time to honor America’s labor force. We take long weekends off and enjoy our few hours away from work as though it were something guaranteed under the Constitution. Folks take it for granted today, not unlike the rights of blacks, women and gays.
But everything we enjoy as freedoms come with a price, and all too often that price is paid for by brutal confrontations, beatings and murder.
Matthew Maguire, according to modern day historians, is considered the father of Labor Day, although for years a man named Peter McGuire took credit for its establishment. The confusion did not come about due to similarity of names; not even close. As in so many cases, Matthew’s political bent kept him in the background. Matthew was a genuine labor activist, steeped in socialist politics at a time when socialism did not share the same popularity that it does today in the United States. He even ran for vice president in 1896 on the National Socialist Labor Party ticket. According to Ted Watts, a writer from Silver Springs, Maryland, “Maguire’s radical politics were unacceptable to the mainstream of American Labor and in particular to Samuel Gompers and his American Federation of Labor.”
The more moderate Peter McGuire was active in the formation of New York’s Central Labor Council and in 1887 took claim to fatherhood of the labor holiday.
Also in 1887, five states enacted measures to establish Labor Day. In June 1894 several more states passed legislation to create a day dedicated to labor, but it wasn’t until June 28, 1894 that Congress passed a bill designating the first Monday in September as both a national Labor Day and a national holiday.
After President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law, the Patterson, New Jersey Morning Call, stated in an editorial that “the souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”
Cleveland, a man who had never done anything for the working man, had dedicated his presidency toward the welfare of industrialists.

Photo courtesy of Rusty Strait
Rusty Strait.

George Pullman and company towns
Factually, the same month he signed the Labor Day bill, at the request of George Pullman and his railroad tycoon buddies, he sent 12,000 U.S. Army troops in to smash the historic Pullman Strike as though the workers were mere parasites infecting a mangy dog. Thirty workers died at the hands of his troops. Eugene Debs, the labor leader who led the striking employees was jailed on false charges of conspiracy and all workers participating in the strike were fired and blacklisted.
George Pullman, in 1880, founded what has come to be known as “a company town” on the outskirts of Chicago. He named it “Pullman City.” Most folks think of company towns being predominantly a tool of the coal mine owners. Not true. They were spread throughout the country.
Company towns were titled “Slavery by Another Name” by those who lived in and survived them. Labor historians have defined them as “A model of capitalist feudalism, with workers offered housing in line with their position in the company. The residents of company towns were practically owned by the company. According to a PBS television documentary they were located in such remote locations as railroad construction sites, lumber camps, coal mines and turpentine camps that existed great distances from organized cities or towns. The employer usually constructed the towns and owned all the land and buildings, including the businesses. Churches, schools and libraries were constructed to encourage healthy communities. Saloons or other establishments that might deter production were forbidden, although bootleg joints and brothels existed under cover of darkness.

Price gouging common in company towns
Transportation was restricted to the localities themselves. Consequently, employees and their families were forced to shop at company stores. They were paid in script that had no value except in company stores, which charged exorbitant prices for their goods.
Pullman’s town was notorious for such shenanigans.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which began to take the nation by storm in the early 1850s, even into the 1930s, workers were at the mercy of their employers. White collar workers, along with hands-on blue collar workers, were often forced to work as much as 60 and 70 hours a week. The rich got richer and the poor were kept in their place by means of economic slavery. Wages of $2 to $3 a day was commonplace. Vacations among the working classes did not become a popular trend until after World War II.
Although Cleveland signed the bill sent to him from Congress establishing Labor Day as a national holiday honoring the working men and women – and even children – it was the coming together of laboring folks who, having long been held in occupational slavery, forced the issue to a conclusion.
Pullman’s employees were required to live in Pullman City, expected to silently accept cuts in pay and to not criticize workloads. Pullman was paid for use of the library and the congregants of churches paid rent to him for use of the church building.
In 1893 the country was in a deep depression. Pullman factory wages were cut 25 percent; however the company housing costs remained high. Before long, his long-suffering workers were in debt to Pullman beyond their means to pay. All such financial obligations were deducted from paychecks.

The Pullman Strike
Finally the workers were sick and tired of such treatment and on May 11, 1894, almost 4,000 Pullman workers went out on a “wildcat” strike – a strike unauthorized by the American Railroad Union (ARU), founded by labor unionist Eugene V. Debs. On June 26 of that same year, ARU members refused to allow trains with Pullman cars to move, with the exception of mail cars.
Pullman fought back through the railroad owners’ General Managers Association by announcing that “any switchman who refuses to move rail cars will be fired.”
Debs countered. “If any switchman is fired because he refuses to move Pullman cars, all union members will walk off the job.” By June 29, 50,000 men had quit their jobs.
Before the melee ended, the railroad workers at Blue Island yards went on an angry rampage and burned anything that was flammable. Thus, for the first time, a federal injunction was used to break up a strike.
Pullman, so insulted that his lowly paid workers would dare try to “steal what is mine,” that shortly before his death in 1897 he requested that his grave be lined in concrete, “to keep looters from robbing me.”
Folks, as you spend this Labor Day weekend, golfing, swimming and barbecuing in the backyard, remember that your celebration honoring the laboring masses didn’t fall out of heaven or from the Declaration of Independence, nor even The United States Constitution. It was blood, sweat and violent deaths that gave you this glorious, long weekend at the end of summer.
Our first minimum wage law was not enacted until June 1938. Today $15 an hour seems reasonable. On June 24, 1938, the minimum wage was $0.25 an hour. Federal minimum wage today is $7.25 an hour, which has not increased since 2009. I guess it still pays not to expect too much from the giants of industry unless you are willing to fight for it, one way or the other. Just sayin’.

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