Snapshots in history: The birth of Labor Day

Pullman Workers Strike May 11, 1894-Pullman, Illinois It is now confirmed that approximately 3,000 workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company have walked off their jobs in protest around noon earlier today.

Their grievances are many, but none more so than the company's housing policies.

The company, headed by George Pullman, runs the town, and is unwilling to sell property to Pullman workers.

Thus, most workers find themselves paying rent to the company that employs them.

Despite economic prosperty in 1893, the company has cited the recent economic downturn as the reason for drastic wage cuts.

The company has substantially reduced the wages of its workers but has kept housing rental prices—which they themselves charge—at pre-wage reduction rates.

Due to this new policy, workers are destitute. They are unable to provide for their families.

A grievance committee met earlier this week to talk about the issue with management. They have asked for either their old wages to be restored or rent to be reduced.

On May 9, George Pullman met with the committee and argued that rental prices are completely unrelated to wages, and will not compromise.

Shocking Revelations From Pullman Seamstress

Provided here are excerpts from a letter from a Pullman employee of five years. Her name is Jennie Curtiss, and she works as a seamstress. Curtiss' father passed away last summer after working for the company for ten years. He owed the company $60 in rent at the time of his death. Jennie was ordered to pay the rent back for her recently deceased father.

“Many a time I have drawn nine and ten dollars for two weeks’ work, paid seven dollars for my board and given the Company the remaining two or three dollars on the rent, and I still owe them fifteen dollars. Sometimes when I could not possibly give them anything, I would receive slurs and insults from the clerks in the bank, because Mr. Pullman would not give me enough in return for my hard labor to pay the rent for one of his houses and live.”

President Cleveland Signs Labor Day Into Law-June 28,1894

In an attempt to appease workers, President Cleveland has signed into law America's newest holiday. It passed through Congress unanimously. The first Monday of September shall be the nation's first Labor Day.

American Railway Union Adopts Pullman's Cause, Starts Nationwide Boycott-June 29,1894

The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, has thrown its weight behind the Pullman strike. They have initiated a nationwide boycott toward the handling of Pullman cars. The ARU offered the Pullman Company until noon on June 26 to address the grievances. When this time came and passed, efforts across the United States to stop these trains began.

Updates From National Railway Strike-July, 1894

Over 100,000 people initially joined the ARU's strike in late June. Some have said that up to 250,000 workers are involved. In any case, the strikers continue to boycott the handling of any Pullman trains. This has brought the railroad system to a standstill.

In response, the Cleveland Administration has denounced the strike. They claim that the strike is disrupting America's vital mail service. The ARU says that it doesn't wish to halt mail service. It only seeks to disrupt trains carrying Pullman cars. The ARU even proposed that special mail trains be created to avoid any disruption. The proposal was ignored. This issue could have been resolved by removing Pullman cars from any trains carrying mail.

Administration Declares Strike Illegal, Will Arrest Those Who Even Speak Of It-July,1894

The Cleveland Administration, under the influence of Attorney General Richard Olney, has declared the strike illegal. They argue that the strikers have conspired to disrupt mail service and block interstate commerce.

The Administration has also decreed that anyone who encourages the boycott will be committing a crime. Therefore, the government appears to have restricted the freedom of speech of the union.

Federal Troops Called In, Violence Escalates In Chicago-July 1-7, 1894

After strikers ignored the federal government's injunction, President Cleveland has ordered thousands of federal troops into areas such as Chicago to break the strike. Eugene Debs has urged non-violence from the ARU membership.

Governor of Illinois John Altgeld wrote to President Cleveland, harshly criticizing the federal government's actions. He called the president's actions “unjustifiable.”

He said, “So little actual violence has been committed. Only a very small percentage of these men have been guilty of infractions of the law. The newspaper accounts have in many cases been pure fabrications, and in others wild exaggerations.” Governor Altgeld has argued that his state troops are in control of the situation and will prevent lawlessness.

Mayor of Chicago John Hopkins also disagrees with federal intervention.

The presence of federal troops has destablized the situation. Their presence has sparked riots.

Two thousand “special deputies” have been hired from the citizenry to help break the strike and clear the sympathetic riots. These new troops have been called “thugs,” among other names, by Police Chief John Brennan.

A mob has emerged as a result of the heavy troop presence, which includes federal and state troops now.

They are blocking railways and burning freight cars.

Hopkins and Brennan agree that these riots were not caused by railroad workers or the ARU.

With tensions mounting, a tragedy has occurred. Fighting broke out yesterday on July 6. Troops have opened fire.

It is confirmed that 13 protesters have been killed, and over 50 people have been wounded.

The strike was crushed shortly after. Eugene Debs, leader of the ARU, was sent to jail and the union disbanded. Labor Day was celebrated that year as a national holiday and has continued ever since.


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