Sunday, September 2, 2012

True History of Labor Day

Labor Day is not exactly what you think it is.

Labor Day was one politician’s double-sided (notice I didn’t say two-tongued) attempt to appear to be honoring the labor movement while at the same time taking some of the steam out of the movement.

May 1 has traditionally, historically, for many centuries been a day of unrest, a day of loosening of restraints, a day of riotous celebration, and after the Chicago Haymarket Affair (or Massacre or Riot) on May 4 (not May 1), 1886, a day for international workers of the entire globe to honor the memory of the American Martyrs to the labor movement. In fact, in 1889 May First was selected as a day for international celebration of the working man (yes, man, women did no recognized work in that era) by the First Congress of the Second Socialist International in Paris.

In an attempt to defuse the historical significance of that day, in 1894 President Grover Cleveland proclaimed the first Monday in September to be Labor Day. The tradition had scant precedence.

Chicago had won the right to host a World’s Fair in 1892, the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus voyage to the New World. Typically for Chicago (full disclosure here, I have a love-hate relationship with Chicago), the celebration didn’t materialize until a year later, in 1893. (History does have a way of almost repeating itself – one hundred years later Chicago won the right to host the five-hundred anniversary celebration of Columbus’ discoveries. This time Chicago was worse than one year late – all of you who attended the five-hundred anniversary World’s Fair in 1992 in Chicago please raise your hands.)

But back to the earlier century, in the early part of the decade of the 1890s recession gripped the country, peaking with the Panic of 1893. George Mortimer Pullman’s factory at the little Illinois town of Pullman, now at 111th Street and Cottage Grove, had few new orders for Pullman Palace Cars. Mr. Pullman tried to keep his work force employed by shortening everyone’s hours. He did not, however, reduce the rents for dwellings, all owned by the Pullman Company, in the town of Pullman.

The dissatisfaction built gradually, but finally erupted into the Pullman Strike, or the Great Chicago Strike of 1894, what became the first national strike in United States history. Ironically, the protest spread until it gripped the entire country, but the little village of Pullman remained relatively quiet.

On July 2 a federal injunction was issued against the leaders of the American Railway Union, a fledgling organization led by Eugene V. Debs. Amusingly, sometimes the difficulties were described as “Deb’s Rebellion”. The injunction against Debs was one of the first applications of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890 to curb the excesses of the sugar and match monopolies. (Go figure!)

The strike was suppressed by federal actions, the legality of some of the actions are still arguable today, and the designation of the first Monday in September as Labor Day was an attempt to ameliorate the crushing of the Pullman Strike. President Cleveland was also running for re-election that year.

He lost.

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