Chicago labor unrest and origins of Labor Day

The Labor Day holiday came after violent labor unrest pitted the President of the United States and all his federal authority against one of the most powerful unions in the nation

Pullman strikers outside Arcade Building in Pullman, Chicago. The Illinois National Guard can be seen guarding the building during the Pullman Railroad Strike in 1894. (wikimedia)

WASHINGTON, September 7, 2015 – As Americans across the country pause to take advantage of the three day holiday weekend celebrating Labor Day, many may be surprised to learn that this officially sanctioned federal holiday was created in the aftermath of some of the most turbulent labor unrest in the history of the United States. This violent labor unrest pitted the President of the United States and all his federal authority against one of the most powerful unions in the nation. Ironically, that president and his administration were Democrats. They had the audacity to challenge the major party apparatus, thus risking future support from Big Labor.

Even more strange: just six days after the president successfully terminated the strife and ended the violent strike, he signed the Congressional bill that created a national Labor Day holiday. This was a clear political maneuver, demonstrating that it was the party and not the president that ultimately prevailed.

His party never quite forgave Grover Cleveland, as he seemed to have violated one of the unwritten codes of the Democrats: thou shalt not interfere with Big Labor. The  problems associated with such a perceived violation have arisen more than once. Indeed, the situation was much more dramatic some fifty years later when President Harry Truman tried to do what he thought was right in handling a serious strike by steel workers and then coal workers right after World War II.

Such challenges to Big Labor cost Truman dearly. One consequence: most political pundits across the country never gave Truman a remote chance of winning the 1948 presidential election. Indeed, his popularity initially suffered after the war, as his approval rating as it fell from 82% in January of 1946 to 52% by June of that year. But in the mid-term elections, his party lost control of Congress for the first time since 1930.

Ultimately, Truman beat the odds against him in 1948. But labor strife continued to plague him throughout the remaining years of his administration.

On the other hand, in 1894, Grover Cleveland, in similar political circumstances, could not beat the odds, as his party never gave him another opportunity to run for president. It was a moment in U.S. political history that readily demonstrated how party could prevail over president.

Those Americans fortunate to have jobs in today’s economy and able enjoy this three day weekend may find it difficult to relate to the dramatic events that forged this national holiday. But for those currently unemployed and having no job to return to on Tuesday, it may be easier to sympathize with the turbulent origins of the nation’s Labor Day.

Indeed, the federal holiday we now celebrate on the first Monday in September became law partly due to President Grover Cleveland’s hasty reaction to an American Railway Union strike that had turned violent, crippling the country’s railway network. As a consequence, the law creating the holiday was strongly favored by members of the U.S. Congress worried about losing the labor vote.

Reportedly, the bill that would have created a national Labor Day holiday had languished in Congress for years. But that was before the violence in the Chicago area erupted during the turbulent summer of 1894, suddenly awakening elected officials to dangers of their political demise. Then, the once-neglected bill was rushed unanimously through Congress near the end of summer, 1894. It was reportedly signed by Cleveland only six days after U.S. Marshalls and around 12,000 U.S. Army troops were called in to end violent clashes between striking railway workers and local authorities.

The historic strike had proved to be no simple matter involving disgruntled employees demanding higher wages. It is now viewed as a classic battle between labor and management or even between labor and government itself.

Despite the historical rhetoric regarding the Pullman Strike − or the Chicago Strike as it was known in its day − and despite varying opinions on the part of that strike’s numerous supporters and detractors regarding the tactics and efforts involved on each side of the battle for power, what remains obvious today is that in seeking their demands for higher wages, the American Railway Union seemed totally intent on pushing their agenda toward the ultimate end goal. The union sought to cripple the nation’s railway system and win a great victory.

The benefits of that victory would be two-fold: higher wages for ARU members and more power and respect for ARU leadership. However, the union seemed oblivious to the fact that the entire nation was in a state of economic depression, a condition that proved to be a forerunner of the Great Depression.

In actuality, the ARU strike seemed to exacerbate the weakening of the entire national economy, lengthening an economic depression with the intent to promote the welfare of the ARU members. Those members were mainly striking in sympathy with the Pullman workers who had been the workers most directly affected by the loss of business at the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Months after the Panic of 1893 had plunged the United States into economic depression, George Pullman’s company was severely weakened. Seriously and adversely affected by the Panic, the railroads curtailed the purchase of sleeper cars as a cost-saving measure. As orders for his train cars shrunk, owner Pullman was forced to lay off a majority of his workers and cut the wages of his remaining employees.

What also remains obvious in this saga is that George Pullman was fighting for his survival, and the survival of his business. But his business model paved the way for his undoing.

Pullman had built the company town of Pullman, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, for approximately 12,000 residents, intending it as a sort of utopia for the sake of his own factory workers. As a result, he was also the landlord for his workers.

When the economic fallout from the 1893 depression persisted, his captive workers saw their wages lowered during the winter of 1893-94. Unfortunately, Pullman unfairly refused to lower rents as well. Disputing the resulting inequitable compensation for its approximately 3300 workers left on payroll, the Pullman workers’ union organized a strike beginning on May 11, 1894, an action that predictably led to a stalemate.

Unfortunately, stalemates do not often end well. Usually, one side or the other still needs to continue to the ongoing power struggle and escalate it to another level. This struggle proved no exception, definiivtely morphed into a new and dangerous and more dangerous level.

Read Part II: Labor unrest, politics of power, and origins of Labor Day

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.