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What is the origin of Labor Day?

Updated on September 2, 2014

The 1st Monday in September

The notion to promote a day in honor of labor was conceived a little more than ten years before such a day was federally recognized. However, the origin of Labor Day in the end lay in an industrialist’s greed and a president’s political cynicism.

George Pullman is better known for his eponymous luxury railway cars than for the dismal and exploitive treatment of his workers, let alone for his role in the origin of Labor Day. It was Pullman’s disdain and soulless behavior, though, that lit the match and kindled the flame of worker discontent that, in the end, gave us all a well-deserved first Monday off in September.

George Pullman - man of wealth and fame.
George Pullman - man of wealth and fame. | Source

George Mortimore Pullman

An aggressive capitalist, George Pullman felt he knew the true value of a buck and the best way to make one. As with many global corporations of today, that way did not include recognition of the dignity of labor or compensation of his workers for the fair value of their production.

Some may point to the fact that he provided shelter for his workers in the company town of Pullman, a housing community, well known for its aesthetic appeal, that George Pullman built from scratch on swampland south of Chicago. Pullman workers did, indeed, live in Pullman and Pullman supplied housing, but, like an unaffordable health plan or unfunded pension, it was not an actual benefit. In fact, Pullman charged his workers rent at rates sufficient to pay a handsome return to himself and his investors, while leaving the workers themselves impoverished.

Pullman plant and hotel.
Pullman plant and hotel. | Source

"... Residents paid rent to the Pullman Company; they bought gas from the Pullman Company; they walked on streets owned in fee simple by the Pullman Company; they paid water tax to the Pullman Company…They sent their children to Pullman's school, attended Pullman's church, looked at but dared not enter Pullman's hotel with its private bar, for that was the limit…The lives of the working men were bounded on all sides by the Pullman Company; Pullman was the horizon in every direction."
----a Pullman resident, 1886

Sadly, the impoverishment was just as much social as economic, with the Pullman company owning and controlling all the businesses and what little entertainment was available within the town.

The single bar selling alcohol was in the Hotel Florence, and it was off limits to town residents. As letters written by Pullman employees of the time make clear, working for the Pullman company and living in the town of Pullman was far closer to servitude than honest labor.

Stepping out in Pullman.
Stepping out in Pullman. | Source

"We're not gonna take it!"

 workers walk out
workers walk out | Source

Exploitation is not sustainable.

Despite the abundant political rhetoric that claims a tiny sliver of wealthy individuals are the engine of economic growth that keeps the remaining 99% employed, the objective truth is far different. Exploitation is by definition not sustainable, a fact that revealed itself to George Pullman when his workers finally revolted.

When the Depression struck, the tycoon deeply reduced worker pay and hours in the face of declining demand for his luxury railcars. A prudent move, except, having guaranteed his investors a specific return, he refused to make any compensating reduction in his workers’ rents, or in the rates charged by the town utilities. Nearly 4,000 workers walked off the job to protest this mistreatment.

The strike erupts.
The strike erupts. | Source

Dignity and Respect

When Eugene Debs (President of the American Railroad Union and an eventual five-time candidate for the U.S. presidency) sought arbitration with George Pullman on behalf of the workers, Mr. Pullman refused to meet and simply shut down his company and left town rather than negotiate. This demonstration of callousness brought the larger union into the fray and soon 50,000 rail workers were off the job and shutting down the rails throughout the Midwest. Eventually, the strike was a national affair involving 250,000 striking workers. In the end, it took the power of the United States government in the form of federal troops and a federal injunction to put down the strike.

Over 30 people were killed; Debs himself spent six months in prison; the union was disbanded, and Pullman employees had to sign a pledge never again to unionize.

If you were to think this hardly describes a resounding victory for labor, you would be correct. It would, however, produce an important symbol in labor’s struggle for dignity and respect.

PARTY! | Source

Labor's Day arrives.

The strike was a demonstration of collective power that could not be ignored. President Grover Cleveland was up for reelection. Despite the fact that he had just used federal force to violently put down the strike, he now made a play for labor's affections in the hope of gaining electoral votes. A mere six days after the strike ended, President Grover Cleveland signed Congress’ legislation to officially recognize Labor Day as a national holiday. Labor now had its day---but, for Grover Cleveland, it was too little too late. He was defeated in his bid for reelection. As for George Pullman, he died within three short years, perhaps from the stress of his ruined reputation.

The man whose greed was the catalyst for the holiday that is Labor Day was buried in a concrete box beneath a concrete slab reinforced with iron bars, under a stone column, all out of his family’s fear that contempt for the dead industrialist would cause former employees to seek retribution by despoiling his remains.

What do you think? Was that a fitting end for a man of George Pullman’s stature?


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    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Labor Day, for me, meant the last day of summer vacation before going back to school. Although I knew it was to honor the working, blue-collar people for their service in improving the quality of our lives, the day was more important to me as one of personal rest and reflection.

      I had the right to have this attitude because mine was a blue-collar, working class family.

      Mr. Pullman, may God rest his soul, learned his lesson the hard way, by experiencing disgruntled employees. Too bad the situation had to manifest to that extent when it would have been so much better to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

      As for Grover Cleveland, isn't it just like a politician to do an about-face when it's time for reelection? This practice hasn't changed much over the years as far as politics are concerned.

      Interesting article. Voted up.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California

      Great hub! I'd never heard about this before.

    • DealForALiving profile image

      Sam Deal 3 years ago from Earth

      So glad to see this today. Congrats!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      This really is an informative hub. I enjoy reading about history and the reasons behind events like this. Congrats on the HOTD.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 3 years ago from Minnesota

      Very informative article. Happy Labor Day, and congrats on HOTD.

    • word55 profile image

      Word 3 years ago from Chicago

      Wow wee! This hub was from a familiar neighborhood in my city. In fact, before I purchased my 1st home, I lived in the West Pullman neighborhood. I've driven pass the factory many times. I dined at the fabulous restaurant a few years ago. It was classic. I think it is still there. Being a real estate agent, one of my clients made a bid on a commercial piece of property in East Pullman near the now defunct factory. The neighborhood is still a Chicago landmark and middle class people still reside there. As for Pullman's involvement for originating Labor Day, I'm sure some of his employees became wealthy. He was just at the top of the stack or the pack. I'm glad we have a holiday that signifies the end of summer. Thanks my friend, for doing the research and being associated with this hook up of information. Now, I know where The Pullman Neighborhood name came from :-) Happy Labor day!

    • Relationshipc profile image

      Kari 3 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Wow. What a greedy man! I can totally understand why he had to be buried like that, and I'm wondering if he died from the stress of worrying about someone trying to murder or hurt him.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 3 years ago from Northern California, USA

      What an enlightening article. I never knew the Pullman story behind labor day. By the way, congratulations on receiving Hub of the Day.

    • profile image

      Tola Oduyoye 3 years ago

      Thank for this article. Very illuminating and makes me better understand and appreciate the role of Unions on the welfare of workers

    • peoplepower73 profile image

      Mike Russo 3 years ago from Placentia California

      I feel like I was watching a documentary about Labor Day and Pullman. Great writing style. Congratulations on your award. Voting up, useful, interesting and sharing, using all the icons.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 3 years ago from Kansas

      I feel like I've been educated on the subject. Thanks.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Great history lesson that has roots in my Chi-town! I have several unions as clients and can appreciate what they've been able to do to benefit all American workers. Well deserved Hub of the Day Award! Voted up, interesting and sharing on social media.

    • Robin Marie profile image

      Robin 3 years ago from USA

      Very interesting information here. Congrats on HotD.

    • profile image

      hairnow 4 years ago

      A fitting end for Pullman would have been to live out his years in the town of Pullman, sans access to the bar. He might have lasted a year. Thanks for the pertinent history Mowry - enlightening indeed.

    • profile image

      Mowry 4 years ago

      Glad you enjoyed it. Sad but sometimes it takes something like a violent strike to wake people up to the reality of other people's lives. Does Canada have day honoring labor?

    • hisandhers profile image

      hisandhers 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      What a timely article! I had no idea the origins behind Labor Day but it definitely will provide me some food for thought as I work through the Labor Day weekend. A little bit ironic, right?