The legislation creating Labor Day was brought forward as the United States was firmly in the grip of leftist-agitated violence.
Socialist labor movements in the country had been clamoring for the adoption of May 1, or “May Day,” as an International Labor Day since the mid-1880s. The holiday had been celebrated at local and state levels sporadically throughout the country, but was finally adopted at the federal level by President Grover Cleveland as an election compromise with the labor movement in the aftermath of the nation’s first national strike — a bloody one.
The year 1893 was marked by a severe economic depression, then aptly called a “panic.” Businesses and banks collapsed in record numbers. Unemployment skyrocketed. Those who still had their jobs found their wages slashed — and that is where the trouble began in Pullman, Ill.
George Pullman founded his namesake town in 1880, where he established the Pullman Car Company. Pullman was in the railroad business; his company manufacturing railroad cars. It was a profitable company, formed at the height of America’s vast railroad expansion. The town of Pullman was built for the workers, as the workers lived on company-owned land in company-owned residences and shopped in company-owned stores.
When the Panic of 1893 hit, several workers were laid off from the Pullman Car Company, while the rest suffered an average of a one-fourth wage cut. Eventually, the downtrodden and livid workers organized a strike, and to their aid quickly came the American Railway Union (ARU) and its socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs. Debs helped orchestrate a national boycott of trains carrying Pullman cars.
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The strike lasted three months, from May 11 to July 11, 1894. When replacement workers (“strikebreakers”) were called in to cross the picket line, violence erupted. Riots, the pillaging of railway cars, and property destruction ensued.
But it was the interruption of postal mail delivery that really brought the strike to the federal government’s attention. President Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime — insisting that the strikers were prohibiting the government from carrying out its constitutional responsibility for mail delivery. Soon after, 14,000 federal and state troops were called upon to break up the strike.
By the strike’s end, as many as 30 people had been killed. In Chicago, lawless strikers took advantage of the violence to “rob, burn, and plunder,” leading to an estimated $80 million in property damages. Debs and the leaders of the ARU were jailed and the union dissolved.
With the nation roiling and the 1894 midterm elections approaching, Cleveland’s administration sought a way to appease the labor movement. Thus came Labor Day. The legislation was expedited through Congress and signed by the president on June 28, 1894, in the midst of the Pullman strike. To avoid a direct connection with the socialist celebration in May, Labor Day was positioned to fall on the first Monday in September, keeping with a tradition of New York City labor unions to celebrate the holiday in late summer.
Political uncertainty and tension once again are gripping America, with a seemingly endless number of incidents caused by violent, agitating socialists. The Left has been up to this divisive and bullying trick for more than 100 years. And we officially commemorate it today.
Chris Pandolfo is a staff writer and type-shouter for Conservative Review. He holds a B.A. in politics and economics from Hillsdale College. His interests are conservative political philosophy, the American founding, and progressive rock. Follow him on Twitter for doom-saying and great album recommendations @ChrisCPandolfo.
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