Many Americans enjoy a day off of work and leisure activates to celebrate Labor Day but few know its roots. Observed on the first Monday in September Labor Day became a federal holiday when President Grover Cleveland signed legislation June 28 1894 to appease the organized labor movement.
Some credit Peter McGuire a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and some credit Matthew Maguire, a machinist from Patterson, New Jersey, with the idea for Labor Day. Both were members of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Union, which organized a New York City parade on Sept. 5, 1882, that resulted in 10,000 workers, taking the day off of work and marching before City Hall. The day was celebrated again the following year by the Central Labor Union, of which the carpenters union was a part.
The labor movement gained momentum during that period of time with the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, established in 1869, being the largest labor organization in America. At its peak in the 1880s, the Knights of Labor, which was an underground union started by Philadelphia tailors, had nearly a million members.
The union accepted women and black members after 1878, while bankers, doctors, lawyers, stockholders and liquor manufacturers were excluded as unproductive members of society. Disputes between skilled trade workers and industrial workers weakened the Knights of Labor, losing most of their membership to the rival AFL. In 1890 membership was down to 100,000 and by 1900 it all but evaporated.
Railroads were big business across the United States, at that time, with the city of Chicago at the hub of the transportation network. Chicago was home to manufacturers of steel, railcars and track as well as railroad suppliers, rail equipment and rail repair. A third of all rails in the nation were manufactured in Chicago.
Chicago was also home to the Pullman Company started by George M. Pullman who widely introduced sleeper cars. By the 1920s the Pullman Company was the leading manufacturer of railcars with production of close to 100,000 freight cars and hundreds of passenger cars yearly.
On May 11, 1894, three thousand employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman, Illinois, began a wildcat strike in response to wage reductions and 12-hour workdays. In a wildcat strike, workers have no authorization from their union to undertake strike action. Since the passing of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, federal courts have held that wildcat strikes are illegal and that employers may fire workers who participate in them.
Some of the striking Pullman employees were members of the American Railway Union (ARU), which later supported the strike with a boycott in which union members, across the nation, refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. This effectively shut down production at Pullman factories and halted rail lines. The ARU declared that if any switchmen were disciplined for participating in the boycott, the entire union would strike in sympathy.
Within four days, over 125,000 workers from 29 railroads quit, refusing to handle Pullman cars. In response, railroad companies began hiring scabs to replace the striking workers. Many African-Americans crossed the picket line, adding a racial tone to the conflict. Obstructionist activities and property damage began to break out.
U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, who was the general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, obtained a federal injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act restraining rail workers from acts of violence. President Grover Cleveland then sent in the United States Army and U.S. Marshalls to Chicago and elsewhere to control protestors, claiming the strike interfered with delivery of the U.S. Mail. When armed forces showed up in Chicago, riots broke out, with protesting mobs setting fire to buildings and railway cars and finally assaulting the state militia who fired into the crowd, killing four and injuring 20.
On July 8 more federal troops were sent to quell the violence and disperse mobs, resulting in a total of 13 dead strikers and 53 wounded. Two days later Eugene Debs, head of the ARU, was arrested and the boycott ended. Pullman workers returned to work suffering under low wages, long hours and high rents with the position of the federal government falling squarely in favor of wealthy capitalists.
Fearing reprisals and further conflict, the Labor Day legislation was unanimously rushed through Congress and signed into law six days after the end of the strike. Although rail workers lost their fight for fair wages and hours, it awakened the country to the need for labor reform and demonstrated the power of the underprivileged in American society when they ban together. It heralded an era of legislative changes for the benefit of working people and inspired a more humane approach to business and capitalism.