From The Chicago Tribune, September 4, 2011 by Ron Grossman
Read the full article here.
On America’s mental calendar, Labor Day marks summer’s end with a reminder to close up beach cottages and get the kids to school. But the circumstances of its birth were bloodier. Legislation declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday was signed by President Grover Cleveland mere days before he sent the Army to violently squash the Pullman Strike of 1894.
Fourteen years earlier, George Pullman had built a self-sufficient community, south of what were then Chicago’s city limits, with factories, homes for the workers who built his famed sleeping cars and all the shops and schools its inhabitants needed. The Tribune saluted Pullman Town as “a model in its arrangements for the welfare of its citizens.”
But in 1893, with his business declining because of a depression, Pullman cut his workers’ wages — while holding them to their rents. He owned everything in town. “How long will it be before he owns you body and soul?” a labor organizer asked Pullman workers. They struck on May 11, 1894.
When railroad workers across much of the nation refused to handle Pullman’s cars, uncoupling them from trains and, in some instances, destroying them, a federal judge declared the strike an illegal interference with the mail.
In the midst of that unrest, Cleveland on June 28 established Labor Day, for which organized labor had been campaigning. With the situation in Chicago boiling over in the spring of 1894, it would have been impolitic for the Democratic president to resist the efforts of labor’s supporters in Congress.
But with railroad cars being sabotaged, Cleveland on July 3 ordered troops into Chicago. The Tribune reported: “Bayonets bristle from Grand Crossing to Harvey.” Pitched battles were fought in working-class neighborhoods until it looked like Chicago was descending into civil war. Soldiers rode on locomotives — “their mouths filled with cartridges, which protruded like steel tusks” — shooting their way through blockades. The Tribune described scenes right out of the French Revolution: “The women were hysterical and they urged the men to wipe the soldiers off the face of the earth.”
About two dozen were killed in clashes between soldiers and strikers, and the conflict’s momentum began to turn. “The shedding of blood brought the men to a realization of the folly of resisting United States authorities,” as the Tribune put it, and in August, Pullman’s factory reopened. It was a monumental setback for labor. The American Railway Union, the country’s largest union, disappeared, and with it the hope of organizing industrial workers until it was revived by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, four decades later.
But it was pyrrhic victory for Pullman. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled a company town illegal, ordering it sold off, although the factory remained open until the 1950s.
The Pullman Strike became part of Windy City lore and labor history, but who now recalls that Labor Day, a holiday seemingly so bucolic, was born amid turmoil and bloodshed in Chicago?