Columnist’s Note: In what has pretty much become an annual rite, I thought I would rerun a column I wrote a few years ago regarding the origins of Labor Day. I don’t do this for every holiday, but since the Labor Day column has already repeated itself a couple of times on a yearly basis, it is more or less tradition now. That’s how these things get started, you know.
Ah, Labor Day. The symbolic end of summer. Thank Providence for that! (I’ve often wished I had a summer home somewhere far north, and the means, to avoid this uncomfortable season.)
The pending holiday made me realize Saturday that while I think I’m basically familiar with the origins of most of our other American celebrations, I really know nothing about Labor Day. So you know where this is headed.
I realize that, in today’s world, information about anything possibly imaginable is only a few keyboard clicks away, but just in case you don’t feel like looking it up yourself I thought I would share a little of what I learned about how Labor Day got started. A predictable enough column for today, sure, but interesting all the same, I think.
In fine American fashion, Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 as a political move to assuage the blue collar citizenry still wielding symbolic pitchforks over the violent breakup of a railroad mega-strike a few days before.
Labor Day observances had actually been celebrated in New York City 12 years before, however, by the Central Labor Union, who independently planned a demonstration and picnic on the first Monday in September as a day to celebrate the working man. A few major cities passed ordinances establishing a day off from work the next couple of years. It wasn’t officially recognized anywhere state-wide, though, until 1887 when Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York all passed Labor Day legislation in their respective states.
By 1894, 24 states of the Union recognized a Labor Day. And then, that same year, came the Pullman Strike.
It started near Chicago, in the company town of Pullman, when 3,000 workers for the Pullman Palace Car Company initiated, on their own, a strike against their employer for lowering their wages while keeping their house rents the same. They also weren’t too happy about their 12-hour workday. The strike could have stayed local, and even perhaps ended, but the owner of the company refused to see the workers’ delegation to hear them out and the snub drew wide attention.
The powerful American Railway Union got involved by instructing its members not to handle Pullman cars. The result? 125,000 workers from 29 different railroads suddenly quit their jobs and railroad traffic west of Chicago screeched to a halt. As a show of sympathy, an estimated 250,000 railroad men across the country followed their example and did what they could to disrupt railroad traffic, sometimes with malicious, and violent, means. The biggest example was at Blue Island, Ill., when what started out a peaceful rally got out of hand and developed into a riot, resulting in the burning of several buildings and the derailing of a locomotive. The scene was repeated elsewhere around the country and replacement workers (there is another term that I won’t use) were physically attacked by the strikers.
President Grover Cleveland, under pressure for the feds to get involved, ordered U.S. marshals and 12,000 U.S. troops to Chicago to break up the strike. The explanation given for Washington’s interference was the strike was interrupting U.S. mail service and was a threat to public order. There was also a legal matter of upholding a federal court injunction that union leaders stay out of the affair.
Predictably, blood was spilled as strikers clashed with the army and federal marshals. Up to 13 people were killed and another 57 wounded. But the strike was broken. It had lasted about three months.
Fearing the working man’s kettle would boil over again, and to smooth over angry sentiments, a nervous U.S. Congress unanimously voted to establish Labor Day as a national holiday a mere six days after the strike ended.
And that’s why most of us will be off from work Monday. Now, I do realize that won’t apply to everyone, such as members of the news media, retail workers, and, of course, emergency personnel. But at least there’s the holiday pay.
For the rest, enjoy your day.
Wes Franklin writes a weekly column for the Daily News.