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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | The Surprising History Behind Labor Day

The Surprising History Behind Labor Day



Pullman Strike of 1894

This is a re-post from 2011. I think it’s worth repeating …

The end of summer, cook-outs, and retail sales – that’s what Labor Day means to us.  Although most Americans make a point of enjoying this September holiday, very few of them know it began over a century ago with a violent fight for the rights of laborers and a President’s campaign for re-election.

The first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882 in New York City as a workingman’s holiday and a way to smooth over relations between industry and the laboring class who were at that time unionizing to fight for decent wages and working conditions.  The idea caught on and spread to other cities, even becoming a state holiday in several states across the U.S.  However, it didn’t become a national holiday until 1894, following the Pullman Strike.

George Pullman was the inventor of the Pullman car (a luxury sleeper car) and the vestibuled train (where cars were joined together so passengers could pass from one to the other without stepping outside).  Pullman built a company town outside Chicago, where he “shielded” his workers from labor unrest by insulating them from the outside world. Independent newspapers, public speeches, and town meetings were prohibited; homes were routinely inspected for cleanliness. Every aspect of the workers’ lives was directed by the company. An editorial in Harpers Weekly remarked that the power of Otto Von Bismarck, unifier of Germany, was “utterly insignificant when compared to the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company.”

When an economic depression in 1894 led to decreased revenues, Pullman slashed his workers’ wages, but continued to dock the same amount for rent from their paychecks.  Prices in his company run stores remained the same. The workers elected a delegation to protest, but Pullman refused to speak to them.  With no other recourse, employees organized a strike, and when the American Railway Union threw their support behind the strikers, their actions crippled railroad transportation across the entire country.

President Cleveland declared the strike illegal under the grounds that it interfered with delivery of U.S. Mail and sent 12,000 U.S. Army troops to break it up.  The resulting violence (13 deaths and over 50 wounded) caused a wave of disapproval for Cleveland, who was accused by Illinois Governor Altgeld of putting the U.S. government to work for wealthy industrialists.

Since Cleveland was seeking re-election, he scrambled to redeem his reputation among the laboring class by moving legislation for a National Labor Day Holiday through Congress that same year.  Nevertheless, Cleveland was not re-elected.

As for Pullman, he remained so unpopular that when he died in 1897, he was buried in a lead-lined coffin inside a vault reinforced with concrete and steel to prevent desecration of his body.

I don’t like to get too preachy on this blog, but I think every American should know their history.

Enjoy your upcoming Labor Day, everyone, but KNOW why we have one.

20 Responses to The Surprising History Behind Labor Day

  1. He was running his own little North Korea there.
    Ironic how so many laborers (like retail employees) have to work on Labor Day now.

  2. History rocks. One of my kids was asking about the history behind the holiday not too long ago, and I kinda shrugged. Glad you could bring me up to speed.

  3. Hilary says:

    Hi Dianne – labour laws have changed … our Bank Holiday Act came in in 1871 … and it originated via the Bank of England its restrictions re Saints Days …

    I didn’t know the Pullman connection .. Alex has a point … and also the fact now we have to keep the wheels of commerce turning 24/7 – some therefore have to work .. but at least hours (mostly) aren’t dreadful now and we do have choices …

    Cheers – we’ve just had ours .. and it bucketed!! Hilary

  4. Angela Brown says:

    I hadn’t considered the history behind Labor Day. This gives me a different perspective regarding this holiday.

  5. I love this mini history lesson. I find this stuff fascinating. Now, when my son asks what Labor Day is about, I can tell him without running to Wikipedia.

  6. I love reading about the history of something. There’s so much to learn from what preceded me onto this planet.

    Thanks for this one.

  7. mshatch says:

    Alex made a great point. It’s a shame that so many of us now work on holidays, Saturdays, and Sundays (myself included). I knew about the Pullman car (of course) but I had no idea he was such a control freak – no surprise his workers finally rebelled.

  8. Julia Tomiak says:

    This is great – I had no idea about the history behind Labor Day. Thank you. This gives me an interesting conversation starter for the Labor Day car trip to a soccer tournament. Thanks, and have a great weekend.

  9. Steven Symes says:

    This is what I like about studying history! Very interesting and pertinent even in modern times.

  10. Hi, Dianne. Thanks for sharing this surprising history behind Labor Day. Have a wonderful weekend with your family.

  11. Robin Hall says:

    I didn’t know the story behind this holiday. I’m so glad you shared and reposted it this year. I’m going to share it with my kids when they get home today.

  12. I don’t find this preachy at all! Thanks for the history lesson. I knew it once, but honestly had forgotten it (all those things which slide out of the mind!). Guess what my kids are going to learn this weekend 😉

  13. Robin says:

    I didn’t know the story of George Pullman, the resulting strike, and that Cleveland pushed Labor Day through Congress to try and regain the favor of the people and get re-elected.

    First, the Pullman story is a good reminder that even in a country that was very strongly committed to The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution (some of the people still alive were surely second generation, so the whole thing was still pretty new and felt hard-won) that not everyone was committed to the idea. And those people felt courageous enough to fly in the face of it and pursue their own agenda, even though it was arbitrary to everything this country stood for. (Reminder: If it happened then, it is probably happening now. If not, it can easily happen in the future, because history does nothing if not repeat.)

    I realize I shouldn’t have said “First,” because it turns out that is all I actually have to say. 🙁

  14. Joanne Fritz says:

    Thanks for the history lesson. I never knew that about Pullman’s burial place. And I was going to say what Alex said! The irony of it. I never really minded working on Labor Day or other minor holidays (though I wasn’t fond of working on Easter or late on Christmas Eve),and I didn’t really mind the crowds because we needed the business. But I minded not being paid the same wage as any normal day. If I’d worked for a chain, I’d have been paid time and a half, at least. There are many reasons laborers organize in the first place.

  15. Good post, and definitely worth a re-run.

    My favorite story about George Pullman involves a letter he received from a disgruntled train passenger, who complained about the infestation of bedbugs. The customer received a nice apologetic letter from Pullman’s secretary, which was all well and good. Unfortunately, she failed to remove the note she had received from Pullman, saying “Send this SOB the bedbug letter.”

  16. Amy Mak says:

    Very interesting – especially in light of my interest with the Market Basket debacle (thank goodness it’s settled!) and worker rights versus the cooperation. I love America. I love that we all have a voice and have great opportunity to make a difference with words – and action. Thanks for the history!

  17. I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t really know very much about Labor Day and how it came to be. Very informative post! Thanks for sharing this with us and for making me a little smarter. 🙂

  18. Wow, that’s crazy how he ran so many aspects of his employees’ lives. Too bad it couldn’t have been a good community type aspect- lower rent for working for his company, discounts at the store, that sort of thing. What a jerk! And thanks for this, I never knew how Labor Day came about.

  19. Tess Grant says:

    Very interesting! Thanks for the history lesson. Labor Day is one of those holidays that is so often glossed over.