[EAS]Labor Day

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sat Sep 1 04:05:35 EDT 2001

Subject:   Labor Day

(from NewsScan Daily, 31 August 2001)

      PBS prepared this excellent summary of the history of Labor Day:
      "The observance of Labor Day began over 100 years ago.
Conceived by  America's labor unions as a testament to their cause,
the legislation  sanctioning the holiday was shepherded through
Congress amid labor unrest  and signed by President Grover
Cleveland as a reluctant election-year  compromise.
      "Pullman, Illinois was a company town, founded in 1880 by
George  Pullman, president of the railroad sleeping car company.
Pullman designed  and built the town to stand as a utopian workers'
community insulated from  the moral (and political) seductions of
nearby Chicago.
      "The town was strictly, almost feudally, organized:  row
houses for  the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for
the managers; and a  luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived
and where visiting customers,  suppliers, and salesman would lodge
while in town.
      "Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their
paychecks  drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman,
deducted  automatically from their weekly paychecks. The town, and
the company,  operated smoothly and successfully for more than a
decade. "But in 1893,  the Pullman company was caught in the
nationwide economic depression.  Orders for railroad sleeping cars
declined, and George Pullman was forced  to lay off hundreds of
employees. Those who remained endured wage cuts,  even while rents
in Pullman remained consistent. Take-home paychecks  plummeted.
      "And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and
higher  pay. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene V.
Debs, came to the  cause of the striking workers, and railroad
workers across the nation  boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars.
Rioting, pillaging, and burning of  railroad cars soon ensued; mobs
of non-union workers joined in.
      "The strike instantly became a national issue. President
Grover  Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and
interrupted mail  trains, declared the strike a federal crime and
deployed 12,000 troops to  break the strike. Violence erupted, and
two men were killed when U.S.  deputy marshals fired on protesters
in Kensington, near Chicago, but the  strike was doomed.
      "On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over. Debs went
to  prison, his ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth
signed a  pledge that they would never again unionize. Aside from
the already  existing American Federation of Labor and the various
railroad  brotherhoods, industrial workers' unions were effectively
stamped out and  remained so until the Great Depression.
      "It was not the last time Debs would find himself behind
bars,  either. Campaigning from his jail cell, Debs would later win
almost a  million votes for the Socialist ticket in the 1920
presidential race.
      "The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for
some  time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took
an unpaid day  off and marched around Union Square in support of
the holiday. But now,  protests against President Cleveland's harsh
methods made the appeasement  of the nation's workers a top
political priority. In the immediate wake of  the strike,
legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of 
Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just
six days  after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.
      "1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the
chance at  conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not
      "In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of
Labor,  called it 'the day for which the toilers in past centuries
looked forward,  when their rights and their wrongs would be
discussed...that the workers of  our day may not only lay down
their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon  which they may touch
shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger  for it.'
      "Almost a century since Gompers spoke those words, though,
Labor Day  is seen as the last long weekend of summer rather than a
day for political  organizing. In 1995, less than 15 percent of
American workers belonged to  unions, down from a high in the 1950s
of nearly 50 percent, though nearly  all have benefited from the
victories of the Labor movement.
      "And everyone who can takes a vacation on the first Monday of
 September. Friends and families gather, and clog the highways, and
the  picnic grounds, and their own backyards -- and bid farewell to

See http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/038097746X/newsscancom/
for a  good biography of Grover Cleveland -- or check to see if
your local library  has it. (We donate all revenue from our book
recommendations to adult  literacy programs.)

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