The bloody origins of Labor Day

The bloody origins of Labor Day

by Bill Federer

Labor Day. To appreciate it, one needs to know the history preceding it.

At the time the United States was founded, most people were farmers or worked in trades, such as blacksmiths, cobblers, bakers, upholsterers, etc. Then the Industrial Revolution occurred in the early 19th century with the harnessing of water and steam power.

This led to the creation of factories which could mass produce items inexpensively. In America, most factories were in the Northern states. As there was originally no federal income tax, the federal government was financed primarily from:

  • Excise taxes on items like salt, tobacco, liquor
  • Tariff taxes on imports, making them more expensive so people would buy goods made in American factories

The problem was the tariff taxes that helped the North hurt the South, as the South had no factories to protect. At one point, nearly 90 percent of the federal budget came from tariff taxes collected at Southern ports. This fueled animosity prior to the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the North passed more tariff taxes which successfully allowed factories to grow enormous. Textile manufacturing produced items like clothes, glass, dishes and farm tools for a fraction of the previous costs. New ways of making stronger steel led to the building of bridges, buildings, steamboats and mining machinery.

Railroads now could take people safely and inexpensively across the entire nation, opening up unprecedented mobility and opportunity. Inventions and advances in manufacturing made more goods available at cheaper prices, resulting in America having the fastest increase in the standard of living of any people in world history.

President Grover Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty in 1886. Immigrants arrived and could get jobs working in factories, where they learned the language and skills.

One such factory was that of George Pullman, who founded the Pullman Railroad Sleeping Car Company just outside of Chicago, Illinois. George Pullman saw that workers needed a place to live, so he built them houses in a safe little village around the factory, deducting the rent from their paychecks. Workers were paid in company “script” which was accepted at the company-owned grocery stores. It was thought to be a utopian workers’ community and worked well for over a decade.

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Then something happened. There was a nationwide economic depression and orders for railroad sleeping cars declined.

In 1893, George Pullman had to make cuts in wages and lay off hundreds of employees, though rent and groceries stayed the same price. Employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay.

The growing discontent was a seedbed for Karl Marx’s theory of class-struggle and the communist redistribution of wealth.

A young worker named Eugene V. Debs led a strike of workers in 1894. Railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. There was rioting, pillaging and burning of railroad cars.

It became a national issue when mail trains were interrupted. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. More violence erupted, and two men were killed.

Since it was an election year, President Grover Cleveland thought it would improve his chances of getting re-elected if he appeased workers with a national “Labor Day.” He chose the first Monday in September.

President Grover Cleveland did not choose May 1st, as he did not want Labor Day to be in coordination with the Communist “International Workers Day.”

He also did not choose May 1st as it was the anniversary of the bloody Chicago’s Haymarket Riot, where rioters blew up a pipe bomb on May 1, 1886, killing seven policemen and injured 60 others. Attorney Clarance Darrow gained fame defending the rioters.

The statue dedicated to the police who died in the Haymarket Riot was blown up on Oct. 6, 1969, by Bill Ayers’ militant leftist group “Weatherman Underground” during their Days of Rage. The statue was rebuilt, only to be blown up again by the Weatherman Underground on Oct. 6, 1970.

The 1894 railroad strike-organizer Eugene Debs went to prison and Grover Cleveland lost the election, but Labor Day remained a national holiday.

Unions successfully advocated for an eight-hour work day, a 40-hour work week, minimum wages, safer working conditions and more benefits for workers. With these unprecedented improvements in working conditions came an unintended consequence, namely “out-sourcing.”

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