The first Monday in September has been officially celebrated with federal observance as Labor Day in the United States since 1894. The Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had been established in St. Louis just three years earlier. A day to recognize the workers and their labor didn’t come easily or directly.
On the heels of the Haymarket Affair which is one of the foulest miscarriages of American justice, one of the worst strikes in our history was one of the twsted turns on the path to our current holiday.
America’s labor unions wanted a day as an official tribute to their cause of workers’ rights. The legislation sanctioning the holiday was pushed through Congress amid labor unrest and signed by President Grover Cleveland as an attempt at reconciliation after the 1894 Pullman Strike.
That event took place on Chicago’s far south side in a town where the boss owned the factory, stores, housing and church. The September date also served corporate interests to undermine May 1st, which had been adopted by trade unionists as rallying point since the 1886 Haymarket Massacre. May Day has become International Workers Day and is celebrated worldwide.
The Pullman Palace Car Co had cut workers’ wages more than one-fourth during the Panic of 1893 but raised the rents and prices paid by employees in Pullman-owned housing and stores. Pullman workers, many of them American Railway Union members, went on a wildcat strike refusing to move trains that pulled Pullman cars. Railway Union President Eugene Debs, initially warned against striking but reluctantly led the stoppage after it spread to St. Louis.
George Pullman flat out refused to recognize the union or consider any settlement. Eventually, 250,000 rail workers joined in the strike and shut down train traffic moving west from Chicago.
Over the objections of Governor Altgeld, Cleveland sent federal troops to break the strike. Thirty workers were killed. The strike was ended. The trains ran. The law designating Labor Day was signed six days later. Public opinion turned against Cleveland, Pullman and Debs. Debs was jailed for contempt of court, Pullman was forced to sell his town, and Cleveland’s Democrats took a beating in the 1894 mid-term elections.
Organized labor barely survived until Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. Since the 1980s, the war on labor has intensified with antiworker groups winning a majority of state houses. Union membership was 10.3% overall and just 6.2% of the private sector in 2019.