What We Celebrate on Labor Day

By Chris Barton, Staff Writer

What are we celebrating on Labor Day?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is labor – but not as in physical work. Labor Day celebrates the American Labor Movement and hearkens back to a time in American history when workers were pitted against their employers in an often violent battle for better wages and working conditions.

The 1890s were not the best of times to be a wage worker in America. Workers – including children – often worked 12-hour days in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, making just enough money to not immediately die of hunger. In response to their exploitation, workers utilized collective bargaining to fight for better treatment. The rise of labor unions in America is generally referred to as the Labor Movement, and Labor Day began as a day for unionists and their allies to celebrate their victories.

The natural enemy of the labor union is big business and – specifically for the late 1800s – the ‘Robber Barons:’ immensely rich industrialists and business owners. The Robber Barons owned the companies that many workers were employed by, and who, in the eyes of the Labor Movement, were the ones benefiting from the suffering of the workers. Important for the story of Labor Day is George Pullman, the Robber Baron who owned an enormous railway car company in Chicago.

How the Pullman employees felt – and why they went on strike

Many of Pullmans’ workers lived in a ‘company town’ built and operated by the Pullman company. In 1894, Pullman lowered wages and laid off many workers – but didn’t reduce the rent of the houses where his employees lived. Angered by what they saw as further exploitation at the hands of Pullman, the workers went on strike to attempt to negotiate a lower cost of living. When Pullman ignored them, the strikers were joined by the American Railway Union, which refused to operate any train that pulled a Pullman car. This included most trains west of Detroit, and crippled the country.

Worried that the Postal Service would not be able to deliver mail, US President Grover Cleveland called on the Attorney General (who had close ties to the railroad industry) to get the trains moving again. A federal court issued an injunction barring unions from supporting the strike and demanding that the workers return to their jobs – which was roundly ignored by the striking workers.

A sketch from the time, showing the National Guard shooting at strikers.

Although the strikes had been inconvenient for everyone involved, they had not yet turned violent or destructive. All that changed when the federal government sent in the Army to end the strike and force the workers to return to their jobs; 1200 troops (plus thousands of US Marshals) were brought in against the striking workers. At the arrival of the troops, workers rioted, destroying railway cars and other company equipment. The troops responded with bullets. By the time the strike had been broken, 30 workers had been killed, 57 were wounded, and over $80 million of property damage had occurred.

Six days later, Congress passed a bill authorizing Labor Day as a federal holiday. It was intended as a symbolic gesture to start the reconciliation process between the federal government and the Labor Movement. To the workers at the Pullman factory, it must have come across as bitterly hypocritical.

Labor Day is more than a long weekend to go camping. It’s a chance to reflect on an oft-ignored era of American history, and to recognize that the problems we see today are not new. We might not have Robber Barons, but we have the 1%. We might have better working conditions, but many of us still have to fight for a livable wage. Labor Unions continue to use collective bargaining to improve their positions. And Government continues to push back and push down unions.

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