In 1894, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages to the workers who were already doing 12 hour days. In response, some 3,000 workers struck against them. This set off a strike from railway works that at it’s height would have a quarter million workers in 27 states striking. President Grover Cleveland called in the US military to stop the strike, on the excuse that they were interrupting the delivery of federal mail. At the end of the strike, 13 strikers were killed, 57 were wounded, there were untold thousands of dollars in damage, and the unions in the United States had been dealt a decisive blow that it would take until the Great Depression to bounce-back from.
The Pullman workers themselves did get rehired, but at their old wages and with the union dissolved. The strike leaders were never re-hired, and Eugene Debs, who lead the national strike, was arrested and convicted.
It wasn’t a total loss to labor- Pullman was required to divest a lot of his company in 1989 by the Illinois Supreme court, and company towns were found to be “Un-American”. As a sop to this still large contingency of the population, Grover Cleavland proposed Labor Day as the first Monday of September, and it was unanimously passed by Congress.
Labor Day in the United States is marked by barbecues, taking one last trip before school, and shopping, and rarely is it associated with the actual roots of the celebration. Of course, for the shopping, the travel, and the barbecues, ironically, this ends up many people are still working on labor day.
But Labor Day should be considered the American Holiday. Labor Day represents the struggle between businesses and labor, the political deals we make, the race struggle, the gender struggle, and the struggle between national and international. The Pullman strikers had legitimate concerns, but they undercut their own strength by being not letting the African-American community join, and cutting out women. We celebrate Labor Day in September to grilling meat and maybe a parade- the rest of the world celebrates May Day to fiery speeches. But the aspect that makes Labor Day the most American of all of our holidays is the disconnect between its purpose and its practice. We forget our own history, the struggles of our own people, for a narrative that we like better- that of the United States being the land of opportunity that people can bootstrap their way up. We forget the violence and the death in order to make way for a narrative we like. And we make the day a hell for those who actually labor instead of day of rest and reflection.
Happy Labor Day, for all you Americans. Happy Monday for everyone else.