WASHINGTON: As we enjoy the three day holiday weekend to celebrate Labor Day, many are not fully aware of how this official federal holiday was created. In reality, Labor Day is not about labor union officials harmonizing with the government. It was not to honor the efforts of those who labored day in and day out to help build America. It was a response to the unrest among American workers.
The first, and unofficial, Labor Day
The first Labor Day parade in New York City on September 5, 1882, is the sanitized version of the beginning of Labor Day in the United States. However, it was not the inception of the national holiday that Americans celebrate today.
The wonderful presentation of the history of Labor Day emanating from the website of the U.S. Department of Labor often masks the real reasons Labor Day originated. The first parade depicted in New York is a mellow version of the vision of effectiveness of working people bringing awareness to persistent problems when the public seems apathetic.
On September 5th in 1882, around 10,000 workers came together in the streets of New York City to march in America’s first official Labor Day parade. The event was fairly pleasant, and marchers enjoyed family picnics in the aftermath.
It was the Norman Rockwell type of image that most Americans can relate to as they seek to spend time with family and friends on the Labor Day weekend in 2018.
It was not until 1894 that Labor Day became official
Yet, the national Labor Day holiday did not begin in 1882, nor 1883, nor in 1884. Labor Day was born in the heat of the summer of 1894 in the wake 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 the federal authority he could muster against one of the most powerful labor unions in the nation.
The irony is that the president and his administration were Democrats, and they had the audacity to challenge their Party and Big Labor, one of the largest Democrat support bases. The federal response proved to be political suicide for President Grover Cleveland, the Democrat in the White House.
From the ashes of Labor Unrest rises a beloved summer holiday
During the hot summer months of 1894, in the midst of the worst economic depression prior to the Great Depression, a worker’s strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company, escalated into deadly widespread labor unrest. During the winter of 1893-94, a nationwide economic depression had consumed several previously healthy businesses.
The Pullman Company, a business that manufactured passenger coach cars for railroad companies, tried to remain solvent. However, George Pullman would lay off approximately ⅔ of his workforce. Then he lowered the wages of the workers who were kept on the payroll.
The depression did force Pullman to lower wages, yet he kept the rent constant for the rental units that housed his workers in his town of Pullman, Illinois. This sparked Pullman workers to strike, and the escalation of the Pullman Strike by the American Railway Union spread from Chicago across the Midwest, and then quickly swept throughout the country.
The Pullman Strike grows
At its peak, the strike, led by ARU leader Eugene V. Debs, exploded to involve a quarter of a million workers across 27 states. Violence spread to many cities and the public became frightfully worried about such widespread violence.
After public concerns over the chaos and unrest, the destructive and deadly strike was crushed by Grover Cleveland who sent Federal troops to the Chicago area. Eerily, Independence Day in 1894 witnessed President Cleveland deploying 12,000 U.S. Army troops to end the violent clashes between the strikers and local authorities and to restore order.
The Pullman Strike grows violent
On July 6th, a violent mob stoned a train, killing the engineer and injuring passengers. At the time, the AFL and Samuel Gompers, as well as other various Railroad brotherhoods, opposed the ARU strike and denounced the rioting, sabotage, and violence.
Before the strike was officially squelched by President Cleveland’s deployment of troops, approximately 30 people, including 13 strikers, were killed. Fifty-seven people had been injured or wounded. Nearly $340,000 (equivalent to roughly $80 million today) worth of property damage was done.
The strike is commonly referred to as “Deb’s Rebellion,” named after the socialist Eugene V. Debs.
Deb’s Rebellion to promote American Socialism
“Deb’s Rebellion” was a turning point in U.S. history; definitely a turning point in U.S. labor law, and in relations between the federal government and the labor unions. However, within six days after President Grover Cleveland successfully terminated the violent strike, he signed the congressional bill that created Labor Day as an official U.S. holiday.
This was a clear political maneuver, demonstrating that it was the Party and not the president that ultimately prevailed in the extension of political power over time.
President Cleveland did take a righteous stand against the terror and violence of the American Railway Union. Unfortunately, the rest of the “Democratic” Party became fearful of losing the political support of their strongest and most consistent voting block due to Cleveland’s “political blunder.”
Indeed, 1894 was an election year for many of the Democrat members of Congress. Apparently, they did not want to pay for Cleveland’s “sin.”
Politicians courting of Unions, then and now
So, despite the destruction of private property, serious physical violence, and numerous deaths, politicians in both parties still generally sought to offer a reward to the unions to win their votes. Democrats in the 53rd Congress rush a vote for a bill that had been “buried” in a pile of potential legislation for quite some time.
With President Cleveland signing the bill, the holiday was set for the first Monday in September.
Interesting to note, there had been a discussion about choosing May 1st for the Labor Day celebration. Certain Socialist elements in the labor movement preferred to celebrate the holiday on International Worker’s Day.
Deb’s push to bring American Socialism to workers
Such a successful display of union power radicalized Eugene V. Debs even more. Arrested for inciting the riots, Debs spent six months in prison. During his incarceration, he read the writings of Karl Marx. Eventually, Debs came to believe that American workers would not get what they deserved. Unless through elections they could eventually gain control of governmental power themselves. Then they could begin the process of replacing capitalism with socialism.
If one wonders about what Debs believed the workers truly deserved. For that answer, one does not have to look farther than the outcome of Deb’s Rebellion. Companies were forced to increase wages despite the lack of serious economic sustainability. They got the ability to destroy other people’s property without serious repercussions from the government. (Even better, if the government itself handles the destruction of private property.)
And the ability to manipulate political decision makers and outcomes under threat of future physical violence. Literally a license to kill without accountability.
Deb’s American Socialism playbook by Marx
This vision that Debs had is essentially in alignment with Marx’s teachings. They can be seen in action in places like Venezuela. The poster child for failed socialism. However, Eugene V. Debs must be really proud. His vision has quite garnered the attention of a whole new generation of fans of American Socialism. They have not yet been exposed to the harsh realities of Socialism.
Yet, Debs would be really proud that many of his ideas are now being implemented in the U.S. That avowed Marxists, have gained control of the government institutions throughout America.