SAN JOSE, September 1, 2014 — Labor Day was not just created as a nice idea by labor union officials to honor the efforts of those who labored; it was born from the heat and intense political friction of the summer of 1894.
Although the first Labor Day parade in New York City on September 5, 1882, is the recognized beginning of Labor Day in the United States, it was not the beginning of the national holiday that people in the United States celebrate today. That national holiday was the creation of the Democrat Party in 1894 which passed legislation that had been languishing in Congress for a good period of time in order to appease big labor, and in order to secure the mutual dependency between the Democrats and the political clout for which big labor hungered.
The wonderful presentation of the history of Labor Day often sanitizes the depth of violence and destruction that big labor was capable of in 1894, but at the time it opened the eyes of many politicians to the lengths such organized unions would go to in order to accomplish their objectives. The parade in New York is the mild and mellow version of the effectiveness of working together to bring awareness to a persistent problem when the public seems to be unconcerned. On September 5, 1882, around 10,000 workers marched together in the streets of New York City in America’s first Labor Day parade, and it was a fairly pleasant event as the marchers enjoyed a family picnic afterwards. Yet, from this innocent scenario labor unions sought even more power, which ultimately included all-out violence.
In the hot summer months of 1894, in the midst of the worst economic Depression prior to the Great Depression, an American Railway Union strike spread from Chicago to St. Louis and quickly swept through the entire country like a California wildfire in dry summer heat. At its peak, the ARU strike, led by union leader Eugene V. Debs, exploded to include 250,000 workers across 27 states and managed to cripple the nation’s rail transportation. The massive and destructive strike was crushed by Grover Cleveland sending Federal troops into the Chicago area. But sadly, before the strike officially ended approximately 30 people, including 13 strikers, had been killed, and in all, 57 people had been injured or wounded. Mobs caused about $340,000 (equivalent to roughly $80 million today) of property damage.
Ironically, it was on the 4th of July in 1894, the president deployed 12,000 U.S. Army troops to end the violent clashes between the strikers and local authorities and to restore order. On July 6th, a violent mob stoned a train, killing the engineer and injuring many passengers. The violence spread to many cities and the public became worried about the chaos. At this time, the AFL and Samuel Gompers, as well as the various Railroad brotherhoods, opposed the ARU strike and denounced the sabotage and rioting. Fortunately, it was not too long before the Army managed to take control of the unruly mobs. Debs and three additional union leaders were arrested on July 10th for interfering with the delivery of the U. S. mail. Eventually, the Army could withdraw by July 19th.
Within six days of the strike’s end and the situation under control, Democrat President Grover Cleveland signed a bill that that recognized Labor Day as an official U.S. holiday. The bill had been rushed through Congress and had received bipartisan support and was unanimously approved. While some historians have made the claim that Cleveland attempted to use the Labor Day legislation to help his efforts to win re-election by mollifying big laobr, they neglect to mention that the presidential election would not have occurred until 1896. Indeed it was an election year for many members of a Democrat Congress. While Cleveland stood firm on what he thought was right, the protection of the American people from the violence of the unions, and the stability and trust in the legal flow of mail within the United States.
This is essentially a turning point in U.S. history although many would not acknowledge nor teach this. President Grover Cleveland had committed a political “cardinal sin.” Cleveland, like Truman later, would take a strong stand against organized labor. And the Democrats were scared to death they would pay the price for Cleveland’s sin. The Democrats in the 53rd Congress rushed a bill to the floor that had been languishing in a pile of potential legislation for quite some time. The bill was rushed through while gaining Republican support and was unanimously approved. The date was set for the first Monday in September although there had been discussion about selecting May 1 because certain Socialist elements in the labor movement preferred to celebrate the holiday on International Worker’s Day.
Cleveland, a good Democrat, went along with his Party’s urgency and within a mere six days after the strike was ended, he signed the bill, but he was ostracized by the Democrats for his sin of interfering in the intent and serious efforts of big labor. He had succeeded in getting the date separated from the May 1 celebration of International Worker’s Day because he was concerned that observance of Labor Day on that day would be linked to the more radical Socialist and Communist elements that had rallied together on May 1, 1894 to commemorate the Haymarket Square Riot, which had also taken place in Chicago during his previous administration. He was somewhat aware that even by that time, Chicago was a hotbed of Socialist and Communist organizing activity.
Ironically, in the aftermath of that turbulent summer of 1894, Grover Cleveland became the goat of the problems as he was castigated by his own Party. Especially Democrat John Altgeld, the governor of Illinois and Democrat John Hopkins, the mayor of Chicago, were outraged when the President sent troops into Chicagoland. Being way too conservative for the Democratic Party, and clearly unwilling to allow big labor to have its way, these two along with the majority of Democrats refused to support any hope Cleveland had for re-election. Despite having restored order as he successfully took responsibility to end one of the most violent strikes in U.S. history that had affected the welfare of American citizens, in the process he had angered big labor.
Another irony during the entire period is that Cleveland, the Democrat, was a fiscal conservative (maybe one of the last of his kind in the Democrat Party) and felt anxious about a surplus of close to $100 million in the U.S. Treasury that had accrued during his term (1885 – 1889) prior to President Benjamin Harrison’s election. Cleveland sincerely believed that the money belonged to the people and if it continued to languish in Washington, Congress would surely find some way to spend it. Sadly, his worst fears came true and turned into a nightmare. Harrison and the Republican dominated 51st Congress initiated a spending spree that proved unprecedented up to that time. Critics of Harrison’s administration and the Congress dubbed the Republican lawmakers the “Billion Dollar Congress.”
High spending certainly eliminated Cleveland’s surplus and the Billion Dollar Congress depleted the gold reserves in the Treasury to buy silver in order to manipulate the money supply. For the first time in America’s history, one political party’s control of the government had appropriated over $1 billion a year. This happened quickly and at a rate of nearly $50 million a year in order to deposit less valuable silver into the Treasury. Many historians believe that this the destabilization of U.S. currency at that time as well as such aggressive tampering with the economy backfired on the Republicans as Harrison and his party lost by an overwhelming margin in 1892. Unfortunately, the actions of the Harrison government exposed the economy to great uncertainty and instability as the gold supply in the Treasury was virtually erased.
These unstable economic conditions represented a ticking economic time bomb by the time Cleveland once again took the oath of office in March of 1893; they were only exacerbated by the unrelenting demands of the American Railway Union. Actually, by Union objectives, the Pullman Strike was somewhat successful because the ARU, joined by non-union mobs, demonstrated that they had the power to stifle the mobility of most trains throughout the Midwest to make their point. However, the ARU managed to alienate the general public and cripple interstate commerce in an already devastated economy. The Panic of 1893 that year ripped through the country. The stock market crashed. Many railroads and businesses failed, the subsequent runs on the banks caused several bank failures. And, ironically unemployment rose to staggering levels. The ensuing economic depression lasted four years.
Perhaps the biggest irony was that Eugene Victor Debs was transformed into a hero of the Socialists and while Cleveland would never again run for president, Debs got to run for president – several times. In the aftermath of that turbulent summer of 1894, Debs was arrested and served six months in prison. The Pullman Strike left a serious memory that further radicalized Eugene Debs. During his incarceration, he studied the writings of Karl Marx and came to believe that American workers would not get what they deserved until through elections they could eventually gain control of governmental power themselves and then they could begin the process of replacing capitalism with socialism. Indeed, they have never given up their fight.
Since this period of time, the Socialists have morphed into many organizations, with different names and faces following the lead of Debs in various bids for president between 1912 and 1920. Debs became one of the leading socialists of his time, even running for president from his jail cell (imprisoned for opposing America’s intervention into The Great War) in the 1920 election. But the Socialists never got what they “deserved” until they finally secured control of the major political party that had once been their most hated adversary. Today, although the modern Democrat Party would like to portray itself as the party of F.D.R and Kennedy, it does not represent the cherished American values of even those presidents, let alone the fundamental values upon which this nation was built. Eugene V. Debs must be proud indeed.