Why Labor Day Became a Federal Holiday

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Why is today a federal holiday?  

It all goes back to a financial collapse, a ConservaDem, a labor leader and blood on the streets of Chicago.

On one side of the virtual civil war that would erupt was  Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to serve as President after the Civil War.  He was no FDR:

Cleveland was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs, free silver, inflation, imperialism and subsidies  to business, farmers or veterans. His battles for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives.

He was also anti-labor.

On the other side was Eugene V. Debs, a railroad union organizer.  Debs came from a middle class family in Indiana, but he had quit school to go to work in the railroad yards at fourteen.  Before long, he became a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman, and rose through the ranks to become Grand Secretary of the union by the time he was twenty-five.

In 1893, the United States was hit by a terrible financial collapse.  The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went bankrupt, and that put some banks at risk.  Concern spread, bank runs began and a number of banks failed.  That was followed by the failure of more railroads, including some of the biggest in the country: the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.  At the time, these were the largest enterprises in the nation.  Unemployment shot up to an estimated 17-19% and millions of heretofore “middle class” Americans were unable to meet debt payments as foreclosures skyrocketed.

There was no social safety net: no food stamps, no unemployment, no Social Security, no Medicare.  When the economy collapsed, those without savings or family backup simply lived on the streets until they starved.  Howard Zinn describes in A People’s History what it was like:

In New York City, in Union Square, Emma Goldman addressed a huge meeting of the unemployed and urged those whose children needed food to go into the stores and take it.  She was arrested for “inciting to riot” and sentenced to two years in prison.  In Chicago, it was estimated that 200,000 people were without work, the floors and stairways of City Hall and the police stations packed every night with homeless men trying to sleep.

In the midst of this depression, Debs and some fellow railroad workers formed a new union based on the industrial model later followed by the CIO.  The American Railway Union aimed to organize all railway workers into one union to increase their solidarity and therefore power when confronting the Capitalists.

More accurately, Debs wanted to organize ALL railroad workers, but was he was opposed in his efforts to organize African Americans.  In the union’s 1894 convention, delegates voted 112 to 100 to exclude black workers over Debs’ objection.  Debs later noted that the move not only morally wrong but also significantly weakened the union in its later battles.

In June of 1894, workers went on a “wildcat” strike against the Pullman Place Car Company, headquartered in a company town, Pullman, Illinois, on the outskirts of Southside Chicago.  They appealed to Debs’ ARU for support:

Mr. President and Brothers of the American Railway Union.  We struck at Pullman because we were without hope.  We joined the American Railway Union because it gave us a glimmer of hope.

The note went on to describe how the company had cut wages and dismissed union members.  It also detailed how Pullman profited extravagantly by overcharging his employees/residents of his company town for gas and water.  When a committee presented Mr. Pullman with these grievances, the best he could do was call them all his “children.”

The ARU backed the Pullman workers.  It asked its members around the nation to refuse to handle Pullman cars, and since most passenger trains had Pullman cars, this brought passenger rail traffic, then the nation’s main mode of inter-city transportation, to a halt around the country’s main railroad hub, Chicago.

The railroads responded in the usual fashion, hiring private security thugs to break the strike, but the workers became only more militant.  Trains were derailed.  Strike breaking engineers were pulled off trains.

President Cleveland’s Attorney General, a former railroad lawyer, got an injunction against the strike, but the workers ignored the injunction.

Cleveland called in federal troops to break the strike.  The state militia joined them.  The troops used bayonets in a charge against the strikers.  The union men responded with rocks against the soldiers.  Then the soldiers fired into the crowd.

Thirteen were killed, fifty-three seriously wounded and seven hundred arrested, including Debs.

The forces of Capital applauded Cleveland, but labor and even Illinois Democrats did not.  Cleveland needed to mend fences, and declaring a “Labor Day” was a cheap way to do it.  Obviously, the traditional Labor Day celebrated on May 1 was too “Red” for a Bourbon Democrat like Cleveland, so the first Monday in September was chosen, a day that had been used for labor parades in New York City for years.

Even though he was represented at trial by Clarence Darrow, Debs was convicted of violating the injunction against the strike and served two years in prison.  He used the time to study socialism and later became the Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, winning nearly a million votes (around 6%) in both 1912 and 1920.

Cleveland did not even manage to win the Democratic nomination for President in 1896.  He was replaced by William Jennings Bryan who lost to McKinley.

The struggle for labor rights continued.  Below are a few of the “battles” worth remembering today.

Haymarket: The AFL called a national general strike for May 1 to support the eight-hour day.  Police fired into a crowd of strikers in Chicago on May 3, and workers gathered on May 4 in Haymarket Square to protest.  Police approached to shut down the protest, and a bomb exploded in their midst, killing seven policemen.  The police fired into the crowd, killing several and wounding two hundred.  

Eight anarchists were arrested and put on trial:

The trial has been characterized as one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in United States history.[42] Most working people believed Pinkerton agents had provoked the incident.[31] On June 26, 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld  signed pardons for Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab after having concluded all eight defendants were innocent. The governor said the reason for the bombing was the city of Chicago’s failure to hold Pinkerton guards responsible for shooting workers.[43] The pardons ended his political career.

The police commander who ordered the dispersal was later convicted of corruption. The bomb thrower was never identified.

May Day is a remembrance of these events.

Ludlow Massacre

The United Mine Workers went on strike against coal companies in Colorado owned by the Rockefellers.  The union demanded a wage increase, adherence to the eight-hour day and the right to buy goods at stores other than those owned by the Rockefellers.

The company immediately evicted the workers and their families from the company town where they lived, so the union set up a tent city nearby.  Scabs were brought in, and the union set up picket lines to prevent the strike breakers from entering the mines.  The company responded by bringing in private security that shown searchlights into the workers’ camp and fired random bullets into the tents night after night, occasionally killing a worker or family member.

Still the workers would not give up.  The governor called in the state militia, and things escalated even further.

The militia set up machine gun emplacements and began to fire into the camp.  The workers responded with some gunfire, but most simply tried to flee with their families.  The militia set fire to the camp, and four women and eleven children, hiding in a hole beneath one of the tents, were killed.  Leaders of the strike who were captured by the militia and the private security thugs who accompanied them, were murdered without trial on the spot.

The Bonus Army:

In 1932, an “army” of World War I veterans and their families, numbering nearly 50,000, came to Washington, D.C. in the midst of the Great Depression to demand payment of their long-promised WW I bonuses.  They erected a camp of tents and shacks in Anacostia in southwest D. C. not far from the Capitol.

While they were there, the House passed a bill to pay the bonus, but the Senate refused to act.

Hoover’s Attorney General ordered them out, but the marchers refused.  When D. C. police tried to remove them, they resisted, so Hoover called in the Army.

Led by Douglas MacArthur and his aide, Dwight Eisenhower, with tanks and cavalry commanded by George Patton, the marchers were driven out at bayonet point with the aid of an arsenical gas.  Two of the veterans and an eleven week-old baby were killed.

Labor Day Is a Memorial Day

Labor Day is properly a Memorial Day.  Its martyrs were more likely to wear tattered rags than soldiers’ uniforms (those who wore the uniforms were likely doing the killing) and their names are rarely remembered if they are even known.  If you want to honor those who died for the freedoms and rights we enjoy today, you could find no better than those who died at Haymarket, in the Pullman strike, at Ludlow and at Anacostia.


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  1. Thanks for the great information goinsouth.

  2. for the people who hold their purse strings. Time to cut those strings.

    Why does History always have a Liberal bias?

  3. will be back later after gardening to reread and comment. thanks for the history it’s hard these days to get a POV from political history that isn’t steeped in present day capitalistic ‘free market’ revisionism.  

    • melvin on September 7, 2010 at 03:17

    not designated Mondays. Moving it disconnected it from both the blood in Chicago and the international movement, which still remembers Haymarket.

    From Solidarity to schmaltz.

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