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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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