Labor Day in the United States began as a local display of union power in New York in 1882. Many workers worked 12+ hour days and 7 days a week, and many were precarious immigrant workers. 10,000 workers took unpaid time off of work to march from City Hall to Union Square. Twelve years later it would become a national holiday, after over 20 states had made it a holiday. What occurred in the intervening 12 years?
According to the House website, Senator Kyle of South Dakota introduced S.730 in August 1893, proposing the establishment of Labor Day, where it sat untouched for 10 months. However, once brought forward, it passed quickly through congress. Why the swift passage?
Workers in Pullman, IL (now Chicago) had begun a strike that eventually turned national. Pullman was a “company town,” a place where George Pullman housed his workers. Pullman’s eponymous town had a Pullman bank, which took out Pullman rents from Pullman worker’s Pullman checks.
When the Panic of 1893 hit, the Pullman Palace Car Company (sleeping cars) began to cut wages while it kept rents the same. Workers went on strike on May 11 the following year. The American Railway Union called on all railway workers not to run trains with Pullman cars on June 22. On June 29, workers were so agitated, they set fire to a train connected to a mail car.
This destruction sparked the ire of President Grover Cleveland. He tried to send in troops because of the breakdown in law and order, but governor John Peter Altgeld blocked this move, seeing claims of anarchy as overblown. Cleveland secured an injunction and sent in at least 10,000 troops. In response to an assault on July 7, troops opened fire, injuring dozens, and killing between 4 to 30 workers. The strike soon ended.
Now 1894 was a midterm election year. Cleveland was a democrat. Much of his base belonged to the American Federation of Labor, a union not involved in the Pullman strike. In an effort to appease this base, the creation of Labor Day easily passed. Note, though, that the new holiday passed on June 28, a little over a week before the violence that occurred. The Pullman workers regained employment only on condition of never joining a union again.
Labor Day is probably seen as the mere transition from summer to fall because of the shrinking power of unions. It doesn’t help that a large segment of the public sees unions as the problem (e.g., “sending” jobs outside the U.S., as if the workers who don’t actually own the companies voted to send their own jobs away) instead as security for workers. Who do you think got you weekends, an 8 hour workday, pensions, child labor laws, sick days, and social security? Bosses weren’t trying to find ways to share wealth; they had to be forced by labor.
Why do most workers not realize the radical origins of this day, while business blogs (like Forbes and Business Insider) do? I believe it’s due to the leisure time afforded such persons by their high pay, while gas station, food service, and hospitality workers face precarity and just want a little break from it all. Cheap goods can inoculate a populace to the source of the cheapness. Cheap goods comes on the back of the third world with the full security of U.S. gunboat diplomacy. Even a well run social democracy (aka “welfare state”) can only survive with exploitative capital.
As my pastor stated, it’s ironic that a day established to celebrate workers celebrates capitalism with savings on cars and furniture. And those workers have to work on Labor Day. Who are the workers who still get terrible pay and terrible treatment by the public? This is their day. The thing that labor in the U.S. can do is not blame fleeing jobs on immigrants or “foreigners,” but realize the common struggle of global workers vs. international capitalists. As two cool German dudes once said, “Workers of the World, Unite!”