My apologies if you are receiving this email twice – the “publish” button was hit prematurely, by me, before I had added my introductory comments, such as they are…. Please accept my regrets…. Now, on with my blog post!
I realize that Labor Day was celebrated yesterday, but its history is a rich one and deserves to be known by us all. There is irony in taking one day a year to honor the value of work by not working. So, what of this seemingly benign, yet ironic, national holiday?
Most of the world observes May 1st as labor day, but not us. The September date was chosen way back when because it was halfway between the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. September 5, 1882 saw the first American labor day parade. It was held in New York City with 20,000 participants carrying banners calling for 8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for recreation. Samuel Gompers, the founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor said of labor day it “…differs in every essential way from the other national holidays in any country. 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.” OK. But, to be honest, contrary to Mr. Gompers, our national labor day observance DID grow out of a conflict. Let me tell you a story…a true one. Are you familiar with the name George Pullman? His company made the sleeping cars for the railroads, the “Pullman Car.” In 1880, George designed and built a town near Chicago – Pullman, Illinois – to provide a community for his workers that would be protected from the seductions of the big city. The town was strictly organized: row houses for the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for the managers; and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visiting customers, suppliers, and salesman would stay while they were in town. The residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, with their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly wages. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade. But in 1893, the Pullman company was caught in an economic depression that gripped the entire nation. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained had to take pay cuts, even while their rents in Pullman-owned homes stayed at previous rates. So the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher wages. The American Railway Union, led by a fiery young socialist named Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the strikers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, looting, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in. The strike instantly became a national issue. President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the work stoppage a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, and two men were killed when US deputy marshals fired on protesters near Chicago. Finally, on August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over. Debs went to prison, his union was disbanded, and Pullman employees signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. As you can imagine, Labor was not happy. Protests against President Cleveland’s harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation’s workers a top political priority; after all, 1894 was an election year. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland’s desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike. The President seized the chance for reconciliation, and Labor Day was born. The ploy did not work – he was not reelected.
A century has passed. The American Labor movement is not what it once was. These days less than 15% of American workers belong to unions, down from a high of nearly 50% in the 1950’s. Now Labor Day is seen by most folks as the last long weekend of summer, the day to celebrate work by not working.
There is a rich history in this seemingly benign holiday. The proper treatment of workers, regardless of their profession, is something worth pausing to reflect on as a society. Think of in this day and age the various industries which would be comparable to those railroad workers, whose efforts had a great impact on the progress of this nation.
Whatever your work, celebrate it as a valuable contribution to society. And, as you do, take time to consider the value of all the immense variety of jobs done by other people everywhere that keep our society moving forward.
Enjoy this day!