Labor Day

By Kevin Robinson in Miscellaneous on Sep 3, 2007 2:30PM

Happy Labor Day Chicago! Although for many this is a day of picnics and playing, Labor Day has a bit more history behind it, and a significant role in its creation was played by people right here in Chicago. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, with workers putting in 12 hour days and seven day weeks and child labor rampant, a small slice of our city lived in relative labor peace for a good decade. In what used to be Pullman Illinois, workers lived in George Pullman's company town (now a far South Side neighborhood here). While workers in textile mills out East and mines out West were organizing and striking, Pullman workers lived in a forward thinking company town, with indoor plumbing, gas, and sewer systems, and free education through eighth grade and a free public library.

2007_9_pullman.JPGBut all was not well in Pullman Illinois. By 1893 the United States was deep in an economic depression, and Pullman cut wages by more than 20%, without reducing rent. After refusing to meet with a delegation of workers over their issues, they organized into the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs. On May 11, 1894 they struck, shutting down rail traffic from Chicago. On June 26 that year, the ARU launched a national boycott of Pullman cars, shutting down factories and idling rail traffic nationally. Faced with nervous railroad executives, President Grover Cleveland ordered the US Marshalls and a detachment of the US Army to break the strike, under the premise that delivery of the US Mail was being interrupted. On August 3 the strike was over, and Debs was arrested.

While the idea of a national Labor Day had been around for a few years prior, this was an election year, and both Cleveland and Congress were concerned about the consequences of both a violent strike and a bloody conclusion. Legislation was quickly proposed and unanimously passed in both houses of the Congress and sent to the President for signing just six days after the conclusion of the strike. It has been a federal holiday ever since.

Today Labor Day is the last long weekend of summer, and much less a day for political organizing. Well over a century since the first Labor Day, less than 10% of private sector workers are represented by unions, and while the issues that American workers today face are different than those generations past, economic inequity continues to be a factor not only in politics, but also in questions of how the so-called New Economy will affect generations to come.

Image via jvoves