Labor Day—September 3, 2012

Labor Day—September 3, 2012

On Labor Day, families gather to mark the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year.  Many families use the long Labor Day weekend to squeeze in the last picnic of summer.  Backyard grills sizzle with barbequed chicken as we serve up the last fruits of the growing season.  Yet, Labor Day is also a time to remind ourselves of the roots of the holiday.

 United States of America  3 cent Postage Stamp Commemorating Labor Day ~ Issued 1956 Stamp design © 1956, United States Postal Service

In 1892, New York City workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of a national Labor Day.  After that first Labor Day in New York City, celebrations began to spread to other states as workers fought to win workplace rights and better working conditions and wages at a time when they had little power.

However, in 1893 the United States was suffering through what is termed the Panic of 1893 – a serious economic depression caused by railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing which set off a series of bank failures. 

Compounding the market overbuilding and the railroad bubble was a run on the gold supply and a policy of using both gold and silver metals as a peg for the U.S. Dollar value.  Until the Great Depression, the Panic of ’93 was the worst depression the United States had ever experienced.

During the economic panic, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages by 25 percent as demands for their train cars plummeted and the company’s revenue dropped.  A harsh winter exhausted savings and left Pullman families vulnerable and angry.  Exacerbating that anger was their complicated relationship with George M. Pullman

and the town that he owned.  Almost half of the car works’ employees lived in the Pullman Company’s much-publicized planned community that provided residents with services and housing of a quality rarely found in working-class communities and bound their lives even more closely to company policies.

A delegation of workers complained of the low wages and twelve-hour workdays, and that the corporation that operated the town of Pullman didn’t decrease rents, but company owner George Pullman declined to talk with them.  Subsequently, on May 11, 1894 in the town of Pullman, Illinois approximately 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company began a wildcat strike in response to recent reductions in wages –bringing railroad traffic west of Chicago to a halt.  The American Railway Union (“ARU”), led by

Eugene V. Debs, supported the strike by launching a boycott on June 26, 1894, in which union members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars.  Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars.Because the railroads carried the mail, and because several of the affected lines were in Federal receivership, President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, believed a Federal solution was appropriate.  Cleveland obtained an injunction in Federal court, and when the strikers refused to obey it, he sent in Federal troops to Chicago and 20 other rail centers.  “If it takes the entire army and navy of the United States to deliver a postcard in Chicago,” he proclaimed, “that card will be delivered.”  The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops.  The arrival of the military and subsequent deaths of workers led to further outbreaks of violence.  During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded.

Pullman strike, 1894

After President Grover Cleveland had ordered the brutal suppression of the Pullman Strike and prior to the forthcoming elections, he realized he had to do something to curry favor with the labor movement, which now viewed him with contempt.  So, he followed the lead of several states and made the first Monday in September a Federal holiday in honor of the workingman.  And that’s how we “won” our Labor Day holiday.

Today—we are suffering through one of the worst recessions ever.  Many millions of Americans remain jobless or have a family member or friend who is among the fifteen million unemployed or the additional eleven million workers who only can find part time work.  Far too many have been unemployed for months, some even years.

Let’s not forget those brothers and sisters who fought so hard and long to bring us the eight hour day, five day workweek, health and retirement benefits, etc.  Our nation mourns the 29 West Virginia coal miners who died when the earth around them collapsed, as well as the 11 riggers who died in the Gulf of Mexico when their oil derrick exploded.  We are still suffering the devastating impacts on the work life of the entire Gulf Coast by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused by corporate greed and the lack of proper safety precautions.

For the past 100 years, modern labor unions have played a significant role in protecting workers’ rights.  Yet, some Americans question whether workers still need to organize. On one hand, they applaud the achievements of a movement such as Solidarity in Poland, but, ironically, fail to see a role for trade unions in our country.

This year, after the Labor Day parades and picnics are over, please take some time to remember and even say a prayer for the workers who lack representation, like the low-wage workers who provide our food – many of them work long hours, in horrible working conditions, for meager wages.

Labor Day should be more than a shopping day or time for back to school sales.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Author: AFGE Local 704

Representing over 900 bargaining unit employees working at the U.S. EPA Region 5 Offices in Chicago, Ann Arbor, MI and Westlake, OH.

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