Labor Day and the Pullman Strike

(10:30AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

I was waiting on BruceMcF to write this as I'm sure his knowledge on the topic far surpasses mine…. but here goes….

The History Of Labor Day


“Labor Day differs in every essential from the other holidays of the year in any country,” said Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another.

Labor Day…is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.” Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country. 


But the story behind Labor Day represents the power of the Labor Movement. Follow me below the fold…

We start with the Pullman Strike.

The most famous and farreaching labor conflict in a period of severe economic depression and social unrest, the Pullman Strike began May 11, 1894, with a walkout by Pullman Palace Car Company factory workers after negotiations over declining wages failed. These workers appealed for support to the American Railway Union (ARU), which argued unsuccessfully for arbitration. On June 20, the ARU gave notice that beginning June 26 its membership would no longer work trains that included Pullman cars.


The boycott, although centered in Chicago, crippled railroad traffic nationwide, until the federal government intervened in early July, first with a comprehensive injunction essentially forbidding all boycott activity and then by dispatching regular soldiers to Chicago and elsewhere. The soldiers joined with local authorities in getting the trains running again, though not without considerable vandalism and violence. ARU president Eugene Victor Debs was arrested and subsequently imprisoned for disregarding the injunction. The boycott and the union were broken by mid-July, partly because of the ARU's inability to secure broader support from labor leaders.

While the use of an injunction for such purposes, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1895, was a setback for unionism, and while most public sentiment was against the boycott, George Pullman attracted broad criticism and his workers wide sympathy. A federal panel appointed to investigate the strike sharply criticized the company's paternalistic policies and refusal to arbitrate, advancing the idea of the need for unions and for increased government regulation in an age of large-scale industrialization.


Grover Cleveland would not have it. U.S. troops were ordered to supress the strike and force workers back on the job.


Because the railroads carried the mail, and because several of the affected lines were in federal receivership, Cleveland believed a federal solution was appropriate.[169] Cleveland obtained an injunction in federal court, and when the strikers refused to obey it, he sent in federal troops to Chicago and 20 other rail centers. “If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago,” he proclaimed, “that card will be delivered.” Most governors supported Cleveland except Democrat John P. Altgeld of Illinois, who became his bitter foe in 1896. Leading newspapers of both parties applauded Cleveland's actions, but the use of troops hardened the attitude of organized labor toward his administration.


In an about face to reconcile with the Labor Unions, Cleveland quickly passes a Labor Day Holiday.

The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City. It became a federal holiday in 1894, when, following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with the labor movement as a top political priority. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The September date was chosen as Cleveland was concerned that aligning an American labor holiday with existing international May Day celebrations would stir up negative emotions linked to the Haymarket Affair. All 50 U.S. states have made Labor Day a state holiday.


  1. Thanks for remembering this history.

    I included some info about other labor martyrs as well.

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