Thanks to a long-forgotten national railway strike, Americans earned a federal holiday to celebrate the dignity and rights of labor.
It’s called “Labor Day” but the annual holiday that celebrates the rights and dignity of workers didn’t arise from the ranks of labor. In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, remorseful over his bloody crackdown on striking railway workers that year, proposed the idea of a holiday as a salve for his own troubled conscience – and as an olive branch to critics on the eve of his re-election bid.
Cleveland had ample reason to feel guilty. Only a short while earlier, he’d ordered federal troops into Chicago to break up a national railway strike. Workers were rounded up en masse, scores were injured, and more than a dozen killed. Historians have called it “one of the bloodiest strikes in American history.”
It all started when 4,000 porters of the George Pullman Company protested Pullman’s cutbacks in their wages. The workers lived in a company town on the edge of Chicago and were effectively indentured servants to their boss—with no avenue to real freedom.
It might have been a small strike – and resolved quickly — had it just involved the Pullman porters. Instead, the 150,000-strong American Railway Union (ARU) decided to go out on strike in support of them. Their action was unprecedented, and within weeks, national train transport west of Detroit, MI was largely paralyzed.
Industry bosses saw the strike as a dangerous threat. Railways in that era were the life blood of national commerce. Moreover, the leader of the railway union, Eugene V. Debs, was an avowed radical and a highly effective organizer. Industry demanded that President Cleveland step in to end the labor rebellion.
Because the strike affected the delivery of federal mail Cleveland had a pretext to call in the US Army. The troops cracked down brutally on workers in and around Chicago and the strike ended. Debs was not only arrested and jailed but the ARU itself was dissolved.
Public opinion generally supported the crackdown. In a meme that would become all-too-familiar in later years, strikers, many of whom were immigrants, were stigmatized as “foreign” and “anti-patriotic” elements. Even Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, representing mostly native-born White workers, opposed the strike, as did some members of Deb’s ARU.
Cleveland suffered significant fall-out, though. Members of his own party, including several sitting state governors, were aghast that he’d turned to the army instead of local state militias. In addition, an investigation conducted by Cleveland’s administration blamed Pullman for provoking the strike through his irresponsible labor policies, including an illegal ban on the right of his workers to own their own housing. A federal court intervened and effectively dismantled his company town.
Cleveland rushed his Labor Day holiday bill through Congress less than a week after the railway strike ended. Workers in various cities like New York and San Francisco had celebrated their own “labor days” for years, and Cleveland must have thought that by honoring this tradition he would win a measure of favor with his critics. With the support of Gompers, the measure passed, but it was too late for Cleveland. His handling of the strike was one of the factors that led to his defeat for re-election.
American workers rebounded from the railway strike. Debs, locked up in prison, discovered the works of Karl Marx and emerged a committed socialist. He ran as the Socialist Party candidate for president five consecutive times, railing against the evils of capitalism and demanding greater rights and fairness for workers. He was a huge influence on the development of the American labor movement in the years leading up to the great Depression.
And the Pullman workers survived, too. Within two decades, their minority African-American membership mushroomed and the group became organized as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the most important Black worker organization of the 1920s and 1930s. Their dynamic leader, A. Philip Randolph, became a committed socialist and worked with Debs, and later helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt forge the broad compact between capital and labor that became known as the “New Deal.”
This Monday it is worth reflecting on Labor Day as something more than an excuse to party with friends and family and to mark the passing of summer. Times are still tough for working people in America – though not as tough as they once were. And for this we have brave organizations like the Pullman Porters and the ARU and courageous rebels like Debs to thank – at least in part.
They shamed the federal government into honoring labor’s struggle for economic justice and basic dignity, a struggle which continues, here and abroad, seemingly without end.