For most Americans, Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer. Parents send their kids back to school and stow the camping gear away. Everyone knows that autumn is on the way.
But Labor Day, the first Monday in September, was not a three day weekend when President Grover Cleveland signed the holiday into law in 1894. It marked the culmination of a contentious, blood stained struggle between a railroad owner and his unionized employees.
The Pullman Strike
Though the history is somewhat unclear, it appears Americans first celebrated Labor Day in New York City in 1882. Workers held a parade, of sorts, marching through lower Manhattan along Broadway. Two hundred members of the Jewelers Union started a trickle that became a deluge of between 10,000 and 20,000 working men and women. They marched to Reservoir Park. Instead of going back to work, as planned, they proceeded to have a party. Reservoir Park overflowed with 25,000 people and “beer kegs mounted in every conceivable place.”
By the end of the decade, nine states had joined the party and established Labor Day as a celebration of the working class. Unfortunately, a disastrous economic depression hit the country in 1890, hitting the Pullman Company, maker of luxurious rail cars, as hard as anyone. Pullman lowered the wages it paid its workers by 30 percent.
According a recent Business Insider article, the workers lived in company-owned buildings, and shopped at company-owned stores. Industrialist George Pullman felt like he gave his workers a sanitary, safe place to live and would not, despite the pay reduction, lower the rent or decrease the prices of goods in his stores. This incensed the workers.
In May of 1894, the workers went on strike and, though it appears that the public was moved in sympathy of the strikers, Pullman was not. Instead of meeting to negotiate, he hired strikebreakers. The strike spread to include all Chicago trains, virtually stopping train traffic. The government sent in soldiers and the violence escalated. The final toll: millions of dollars in damage and 30 lives lost.
Cleveland crushes strike, celebrates Labor Day
President Cleveland “signed the bill into law just days after federal troops brought down the bloody Pullman strike.” It may have been a public relations move meant to appease Cleveland’s constituents. Cleveland, a Democrat, was supposedly a representative of labor. According to many, he badly mishandled the situation by authorizing federal military action that made the violent struggle bloodier.
As you can see, at first Labor Day was a party. Then it was a bloody struggle. And, finally, now, it is the muted last fling of summer, a day with a great deal of history but little fanfare.