Labor Day exists because US troops busted a strike

Imagine your boss at work controlled every aspect of your life – housing, money, food … everything – all in an effort to keep you constantly working and on the edge of survival.

It may sound a little like the military, but without the higher purpose. But this is how some of American industry used to work at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1893, an economic depression led to widespread wage cuts and layoffs, which resulted in workers’ strikes. One strike was so severe, the President had to send in the U.S. military.

Labor Day

Pullman strikers outside Arcade Building in Pullman, Chicago. The Illinois National Guard can be seen guarding the building during the Pullman Railroad Strike in 1894.

The Pullman Palace Car Company, a railway car manufacturer, was located in Pullman, Illinois. The company owned the houses, the stores, the land, the churches — everything.

The company was not named after the town; the town was named after Pullman Car Company owner George Pullman. It was designed around housing his workers and their families – but the cost of everything they needed for survival was deducted from their paychecks.

So the Pullman workers only had about $6 to live on (roughly $150, adjusted for inflation). One worker, who said he earned $.02, had his check framed (that’s 51 cents in 2016). The next year, Pullman’s workers joined the American Railway Union and decided to strike.

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Soon, rail workers all over the country would not operate lines that used Pullman cars out of solidarity with the workers in Illinois. Boycotts and strikes against lines and the Pullman company caused complete paralysis in national transportation. The New York Times called it “the greatest battle between labor and capital that has ever been inaugurated in the United States.” The Chicago Tribune called it an “insurrection.”

The General Manager’s Association called for the use of Federal troops to end the strike.

President Grover Cleveland was happy to oblige. His Attorney General, Richard Olney, worked for the railways before coming to the White House. He and Cleveland concluded that if strikers were not put down in Chicago, it could spread to the rest of the country. He decided it was imperative to restore federal authority.

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The Pullman Strike of 1894

The Attorney General banned all labor strikes. The workers were unmoved, and over the protests of Illinois’ governor, U.S. troops marched on Chicago.

Up until this point, the strike was relatively peaceful. Union leader Eugene V. Debs maintained that violence would only play into the hands of their employer. When the Army came in, “the very sight of a blue coat aroused their anger.”

Both Debs and Army leader Gen. Nelson Miles worried the confrontation would spark a new Civil War. It didn’t, but the violence that started on July 4, 1894, spread across the country like wildfire. Nearly 14,000 troops – funded by the railroads – occupied Chicago while workers called each other out to meet them and destroy railroad property.

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Eventually, the blockade on Chicago was broken by sending in trains full of U.S. troops to clear the lines. Within two weeks, freight movement was on the rise, Debs was in jail, and the military controlled the city.

All told, 30 people died and the railways suffered an estimated $80 million in damage.

As state militia replaced Federal troops, Pullman began to rehire its workers as soldiers looked on.

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While the union workers were dedicated to a lasting victory through legal means, the illegal use of force made that kind of victory all but impossible. In the long run, the workers were happy to prove that a joint effort could upturn the deeply-entrenched social order.

Six days later, President Cleveland designated Labor Day as a federal holiday to reconcile national sentiment between business and labor.