Labor unrest, politics of power, and origins of Labor Day

Labor unrest, politics of power, and origins of Labor Day

Labor Day was born due to the fear of losing a very valuable political constituency in the wake of incredibly intense labor unrest throughout our country.

Portrait of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2015 – Labor Day emerged after some of the most turbulent labor strife in U.S. history.

The stalemate between the Pullman workers and George Pullman, owner of the sleeper car manufacturing company, resulted in a union-organized a strike beginning on May 11, 1894. Then, the American Railway Union, likely the most powerful union of the time, voted in sympathy with Pullman employees and refused to handle any Pullman cars or other railroad cars connected to them.

Read Part I: Chicago labor unrest and origins of Labor Day

The strike spread from Chicago to St. Louis and stifled the mobility of most trains throughout the Midwest, crippling interstate commerce in an already devastated economy. Like a wildfire in summer, the strike kept spiraling out of control. From June 26, 1894, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, ARU members across the country refused to switch Pullman cars onto any trains. By the end of June, 125,000 laborers working for 29 different railroads refused to handle Pullman cars. At its peak, the strike swelled to 250,000 workers across 27 states.

Such widespread labor unrest stirred public fears and demand for government action. President Grover Cleveland responded by appointing a special counsel to investigate and eventually obtained an injunction against the strike on July 2 due to obstruction of the U.S. mail and paralysis of the country’s commerce. The following day, mobs attacked and torched trains. A train outside of Chicago was even derailed by angry demonstrators.

By Independence Day 1894, fireworks of a different nature may have dominated the public focus in Chicago and Washington, D.C. The president ultimately ordered the U.S. Army to enforce the injunction and restore order. Sadly, the violence escalated on July 6 as a mob stoned a train, killing the engineer and injuring many passengers.

Ironically, a reader in our own century would not normally read a New York Times headline condemning the lawlessness of Big Labor. But on July 9, 1894, an editorial in that paper labeled Debs “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race,” since the strike was commonly referred to as “Debs’ Rebellion” at the time.

Eventually, the Army took control of the unruly mobs and was able to withdraw by July 19. Before the strike officially ended on August 3, 13 strikers had lost their lives and 57 had been wounded. The union mobs had caused about $340,000 (equivalent to millions of dollars today) of property damage.

After order was restored, Eugene Debs went to prison. During his incarceration, he studied the writings of Karl Marx. Unrepentant after his release, Debs went on to become one of the leading Socialists of his time, running for president numerous times.

Grover Cleveland never got another chance to run for president. Some historians claim that Cleveland attempted to use the Labor Day legislation to help his efforts to win re-election by reconciliation with big labor. But the next presidential election was a long two years away.

What is more likely true is that the Democrats were desperate to hold on to their re-elections to office because their party had lost big-time in the mid-term elections. They ultimately did lose the presidential election in 1896. But by that time, Cleveland was merely history.

The real irony is that Grover Cleveland had run against Benjamin Harrison in the election of 1892, genuinely determined to reverse the economic problems he claimed Harrison had caused. Unfortunately, after his victory in that election, Cleveland was soon forced to realize that one man could not easily effect that much change without the support of his party.

The unfortunate reality in U.S. political history is that there is little progress without the cooperation and unity of a particular political party or without the trust and support of the people. Sometimes the biggest obstacle to progress is how it is defined by a party or how it is perceived by the public.

President Cleveland − who earlier in his career had served as a sheriff to enforce law and order − saw his role as that of a protector of citizens’ lives, charged with the duty to preserve law and order. Conversely, his party saw their political power being threatened because a huge and active voting segment was being threatened – even by one of their party.

Retention of power should not be interpreted as progress. Selfish gain at the expense of others should not be equated with progress. Yet this is what Americans see too often in politics today.

A discussion of the lessons of Labor Day should not be limited to a focus on labor standoffs and strikes. Such actions are desperate measures that often lead to irreconcilable divisiveness.

Instead of casting history in terms of victories over perceived “enemies,” we should focus instead upon the contribution and cooperation of each valuable person in the economic equation. In 2015, we Americans need to demand more from ourselves, from each other and from our leaders as well.

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