It’s Labor Day, time to settle that age-long dispute over who founded it. Some say it was Mathew Maguire of the International Association of Machinists others claim it was Peter McGuire from the Brotherhood of Carpenters.
Maguire vs McGuire, really?
I am going to settle this dispute right here and now. The idea of Labor Day had been kicked around for years but unlike Maguire and McGuire, the real story of Labor Day has no mention on the official Department of Labor website. The real story of how Labor Day was signed into law started with The Pullman Palace Car Company.
The Pullman Co was a manufacturer of luxury railroad cars on the South side of Chicago. In efforts to deter labor agitators George M. Pullman created a company town for his workers in 1881 and named it, oddly enough, Pullman. The press hailed him as a humanitarian and a visionary but George Pullman’s saw an opportunity to control and exploit.
He charged high rents, inflated the cost of utilities and increased the prices of goods sold at the company store. He allowed only churches of his own denomination, banned public speeches, independent newspapers and within 10 years his town was valued at five million, over six times his initial investment.
Workers had little enough to live on during prosperous times but when 1893 saw an economic downturn Pullman responded by cutting jobs and reducing wages. Paychecks were cut by a quarter. His rents and prices remained unchanged.
As Pullman squeezed, families could no longer afford to heat their homes or feed their children. Out of desperation many of the workers joined the American Railroad Union (ARU) led by Eugene V. Debs and attempted to bargain collectively.
George Pullman refused to negotiate. He fired them on the spot and gave them ten days to vacate their homes. This action led to the Pullman Strike of 1994.
Riots broke out from Ohio to California as 125,000 other union workers supported their plight. Railways were disrupted, damage was done and this led to the first federal injunction to stop a labor dispute (teach them to delay the US Mail and interstate commerce).
That year, on the Fourth of July, President Grover Cleveland sent twenty-five hundred US Army troops to Chicago to break that strike. He is reported to have said that if it took the entire US Army to deliver one postcard to Chicago then he would do so. In the aftermath thirty Americans were killed and an untold number were wounded. Within a week the strike was crushed.
As opportunistic as it may have seemed, it was time to make that old idea of a special day to honor the workers real. Congress voted unanimously to approve and six days after the end of the Pullman Strike President Cleveland signed the bill into law. Labor Day became a national holiday celebrating the social and economic contribution of the American workers and you get a long weekend, yay!
Pullman died 3 years later. His casket was encased in eighteen inches of reinforced concrete then topped with more concrete, a layer of steel rail and another layer of concrete. Two full days of burial to ensure that this hated man’s body would not be dug up and desecrated by the masses.
So cast your vote, was it Maguire and McGuire who founded Labor Day or was it George Pullman’s greed, Grover Cleveland’s violent response and his immediate efforts to appease them?
I would like to wish you all a Happy Labor Day. Enjoy the day, eat a burger, shop the sales and raise a beer to all those who died in labor disputes to make our lives a little better. We have much to appreciate.
If you found this of interest, please visit my blog of entitled, A Hero from the Mills of Lowell published May 21, 2016.