The Truth About Labor Day

Labor Day was not always for family fun and interaction. It began as a memorial to a harsh event in American History.

The seminal event was the strike by railroad workers in Pullman, Chicago against the Pullman Company. This was a nationwide railroad strike in the United States in the summer of 1894. On the labor side was the American Railway Union (ARU). They were faced the Pullman Company, the main railroads, and the federal government in the Administration of Grover Cleveland. 


The strike and boycott shut down the majority of the nation’s freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit, Michigan The physical conflict began on May 11. Nearly 4,000 factory employees of the Pullman Company began a wildcat strike (not voted on by members) as a reaction to recent reductions in wages. Many of the workers lived in the “company town” of Pullman, Chicago. George Pullman did not lower rents when people were laid off or had wages decreased.

Eugene V. Debs had formed the ARU in 1893 in a reaction to the very poor treatment of railroad workers. He had organized many of the Pullman workers into the ARU. Pullman refused to recognize the union. The union called a strike with no success until Debs decided to stop all rail movement west of Detroit on trains that carried a Pullman car. It involved more than 25,000 workers and involved 27 states.

The Federal Government wanted the trains moving again. They sent in thousands of U.S. Marshals and 12,000 Army troops. The arrival of the military and the subsequent deaths of workers in violence led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. Property damage exceeded $80 million. Debs was sent to prison where he read the Communist Manifesto.

In 1894, in an effort to conciliate organized labor after the strike, President Grover Cleveland and Congress designated Labor Day as a federal holiday. Legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress six days after the strike ended. Samuel Gompers, a powerful labor leader, had sided with the federal government in its effort to end the strike by the American Railway Union, spoke out in favor of the holiday.

Now you know the history and “tradition” of :Labor Day. It commemorates death and destruction in the struggle to get better treatment for the common workers.



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