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The Meaning of Labor Day

August 30, 2012

Labor Day - That first Monday in September that often heralds the beginning of autumn and the start of school - was established to honor the men and women who created this country and made it great - the American worker.
There is some dispute as to who actually came up with the idea for Labor Day. Some say Matthew Maguire of the Central Labor Union of New York and others say Peter McGuire of the American Federation of Labor. Regardless, the concept took hold and spread among both union and non-union employees largely due to deteriorating work conditions and increased unionization at a time when the railroad ruled America.
Labor Day became a national holiday as the result of Pullman Strike of 1894 when a number of union laborers died at the hands of the U.S. military and law enforcement.
The strike began in Pullman, IL, May 11, when 4,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, which made railroad cars, walked off the job because wages had been cut, largely in response to the economic panic of 1893. The poor economy devastated the company financially, revenues dropped, and austerity measures were put in place. In the meantime, most workers lived in "company towns" where they seldom got to own their homes and where rents were high.
When workers complained about the low pay and 16-hour workdays, the company's owner, George Pullman, refused to talk to them.
The strike by Pullman employees shut down production of the Pullman cars and effectively stopped train travel, passenger and freight, from going west of Chicago.
The strike spread to other workers in the industry, including members of America's first industry-wide union, the American Railway Union. At its height, the union encompassed over 250,000 people in 27 states.
When the American Railway Union joined the strike, its workers boycotted the industry and refused to run trains with Pullman cars. Within four days of the start of the boycott, 125,000 workers on 29 railroad tracks had quit work. At a time when trains ruled the transportation corridors of America, this strike slammed at the heart of America's struggling economy.
When the railroad began hiring non-union workers (strikebreakers), hostilities increased. Adding to the tension was the attempt by African Americans to cross the picket lines and get work that had often been denied them in the past, which fueled existing racial tensions.
With increased hostilities came widespread violence. Groups set fire to buildings, derailed a train, obstructed tracks and attacked strikebreakers.
One of the railroad companies, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, got a court order barring union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers cease their activities or face being fired. The unions ignored the order and President Cleveland sent U.S. Marshals and about 12,000 U.S. Army troops to combat the union workers.
The battle that ensued resulted in the death of 13 strikers; 57 were injured and about 6,000 strikers took their argument to the streets, vandalizing buildings and property.
Once the strike was put down, various battles ensued in courts, with the Governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, taking umbrage with Pres. Cleveland for siding with the railroad companies and sending troops into his state. And while many of the union organizers faced the courts, the Pullman company was also found to blame for its "un-American" activities. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court stripped the company of ownership of its railroad town.
President Cleveland vowed to make peace with the unions and Labor Day was born.
The U.S. Congress put approving the holiday on the fast track and passed it unanimously, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law six days after the end of the Pullman Strike.

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