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Labor Day and the Pullman Strike of 1894

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Labor Day, observed on the first Monday in September in the United States, is considered by many to mark the end of summer. Although it is ostensibly meant to celebrate the civic and economic contributions of American workers, it is also connected historically to workers' repression and political appeasement.

Exactly who first came up with the idea of Labor Day is unclear, but two stories are at the front of the running:

  • In the first story, Peter McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, first suggesting a Labor Day holiday to honor those whose sweat and toil created the country's prosperity.

  • In the second story, the holiday was conceived by machinist Matthew Maguire in 1882, while he served as secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. Documents show that the Centeral Labor Union adopted a Labor Day proposal and created a planning committee for a demonstration and picnic.

Regardless of whose idea it was, the first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City; the second was celebrated exactly a year later. In 1884, the first Monday in September was chosen as the holiday, and the Central Labor Union urged other labor organizations to begin observing the holiday. Support for a national Labor Day celebration grew.

Meanwhile, near Chicago, George Pullman founded Pullman, Illinois, in 1880, to house the employees of his railroad sleeping car manufacturing company. The entire town was designed and built to house the Pullman Company's employees.

All was well with the Pullman Company until an economic depression swept the country in 1893. In response to a falling demand for sleeper cars, Pullman began lowering wages, but rental costs in Pullman, IL, (which were controlled by and automatically paid to the Pullman Company) remained unchanged. Facing plummeting take-home pay, Pullman employees began walking off the job.

Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union (ARU) picked up the cause, and pretty soon, railroad workers across the United States were boycotting trains that carried Pullman cars.

President Grover Cleveland, citing the now delayed mail system, declared the strike illegal and sent 12,000 troops to break it. Two men were killed in the violence that erupted near Chicago. Debs was sent to prison, and the ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth were required to sign a pledge that they would never again unionize.

Sensing the political unease caused by his anti-labor stance during the Pullman strike, President Cleveland put reconciliation with labor forces at the top of his to-do list. Labor Day legislation was rushed through Congress and passed unanimously on June 28, 1894, just six days after the end of the Pullman strike.

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