How Labor Day Became a National Holiday

September 13, 2019

The bill to make Labor Day a national holiday had languished in the Senate for 10 months without debate. When it finally came to the Senate floor, it passed quickly, and the House passed it on June 26, 1894, without objections, 4 days after the Senate did. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed it. But what was happening in the days immediately before and after that signing should not be forgotten.

Those days just before and after the bill signing are better understood in the context of the battle between labor and management at the time.

Perhaps the most famous of U.S. labor conflicts was the Haymarket Affair that occurred in May of 1886. On May 3, 1886, Chicago police killed workers who were striking over employers’ requiring them to sign waivers of the Illinois law that limited their workday to 8 hours. The following day, a labor rally was held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to show support for the strikers that had been killed. As the rally was ending and the crowd had thinned to a few hundred, Chicago Police showed up to disperse the crowd even though the mayor had granted permission to hold the rally. Someone from the rally threw a dynamite filled bomb at the police. The police then began shooting. In the melee, seven officers and four protesters were killed, and dozens of both were injured. The event was news worldwide.

In the last decade of the 19th century, no federal law existed regarding child labor, minimum wages, or overtime pay. Likewise, we had no federal laws regarding collective bargaining and workers’ rights to organize as labor. At least one study by Katherine DuPre Lumpkin and Dorothy Wolff Douglas estimated that almost 1 in 5 children between the ages of 10-15 were working. Although the Supreme Court of Massachusetts had recognized that collective bargaining was lawful, whether the English common law doctrine would prevail throughout the United States was still in question. That doctrine held that collective bargaining by workers over wages and other terms and conditions of employment was a crime.

By the early 1890’s America was mired in a deep economic depression. And interstate commerce was almost entirely dependent on the availability of steamship and railroad transportation. By 1893, George Pullman’s Pullman Palace Car Company operated over 2,000 cars on almost every major railroad. As was common then, towns sprung up, lived, and died with the railroad company. Pullman, Illinois (now a part of Chicago) was a town built by Pullman for his employees. He was thus not only their employer but also their landlord. He leased their homes to them and sold food, gas, and water to them at a profit for himself. So, when he fired a third of his workforce, reduced workers’ hours, and cut their wages by 25% during the depression but did not reduce their rent or prices for their staples, a crisis was at hand.

On May 11, 1894, — 48 days before President Cleveland signed the Labor Day Holiday bill – the Pullman workers went on strike. In sympathy with the Pullman workers, other railroad union members joined the strike on June 22, 1894 — six days before President Cleveland signed the Labor Day bill. On the day before he signed the bill, 5,000 workers left their jobs, tying up 15 railroads. The next day, while the President was signing the bill, 40,000 more workers went on strike. By the end of June 1894 during the week the bill was signed, as many as 125,000 workers on 29 rail lines had quit. Transportation of goods west of Chicago ground down, and transportation of perishables like farmer’s produce that depended on the speed of rail transportation came to a halt.

On the day after the Labor Day bill was signed, a large group gathered to hear labor leader Eugene Debs speak in Blue Island, Illinois. After he left, some in the crowd became enraged, setting fire to a nearby building and derailing a locomotive. Wildcat strikes were breaking out.
The railroads had formed an alliance in response to the strike. That alliance, known as the General Managers Association, called for federal troops to be brought in to quell the sporadic violence and the economic threat arising from the strike. But the Illinois Governor John Altgeld was sympathetic to the workers and refused the request to bring in federal troops. After the Blue Island violence, he sent state militia to stop the violence.

Meanwhile, President Cleveland followed the advice of his Attorney General, Richard Olney and obtained the first ever federal injunction to stop labor leaders from communicating with the striking employees. Then on July 3, 1894, President Cleveland sent 2,000 troops to Chicago to, as Olney had requested, “end the reign of terror.” The troops primary objective upon arriving in Chicago: make sure the trains got moving.

This sent the strikers into a fury. They built barricades to prevent troops from entering the rail yards and over the next couple of days destroyed hundreds of railcars in South Chicago rail yards. By July 7, more than 6,000 troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshalls were on the scene, but they could not contain the violence. Some of the mob assaulted national guardsmen who then opened fire, killing between 4 and 30 of the strikers and injuring many more.

The strike continued another two weeks before the federal troops were recalled as the strikers had dwindled. Finally, on August 2, 1894, Pullman agreed to rehire the striking workers after Pullman had lost millions of dollars in revenue and damages property and the striking workers had lost more than a million dollars in wages.

So, as we celebrate, for the 125th time, this National Labor Day Holiday, take some time to appreciate how far we have come as a nation. Still today, controversy exists about what motivated President Cleveland when he signed the bill and how it suddenly got through Congress so quickly. Imagine how any similar act by any President today in the midst of what seems like almost unimaginable turmoil such as the Pullman Strike would be perceived by our media and social media. Enjoy the relative peace we have between labor and management. And thank a worker for all they have done to make our nation great!

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