Saturday, September 4, 2010

Repost- "Labor Day- I'll Bet You Haven't Heard This Story" (from 2009)

I just wanted to take a minute to wish all a happy and safe Labor Day, and please don't forget the meaning of this holiday. It is especially relevant, perhaps now more than ever in this era where organized labor is under assault by forces that would crush it. Rather than write a new entry, I've decided to repost the piece I wrote a year ago for Labor Day, 2009. We'll be back with new stuff early in the new week.

The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a wildcat job action of the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, to protest wage cuts by the Pullman Palace Car Company. Following the Panic of 1893, a depression triggered by a run on banks in an era before there was an FDIC, the Pullman Company ordered wage cuts for their workers because of lower demand for Pullman (sleeping) cars on trains.

Union members refused to run trains that contained Pullman cars in sympathy with the Pullman strikers. The action escalated and the by June, 1894 125,000 workers stuck 29 railroads. Violence broke out between strikers and strikebreakers, there was property damage from the conflict, other groups joined the strikers to further slow the transportation of goods, and railroad traffic crept to a standstill.

President Grover Cleveland eventually sent in General Nelson Miles, famed Indian fighter from the West, to break up the strike, using the premise that because of the strike US Mail could not be delivered and that the strikers didn't observe an injunction, and represented a threat to public safety. Miles and 12,000 army troops (and with US Marshals) broke the strike; 13 strikers were killed, and 57 more were wounded. Adjusted for inflation, there was $6.8 million in damages done by 6,000 strikers.

So why am I giving you a thumbnail history lesson? Because days after the strike was broken President Cleveland sought to reconcile with organized labor. A bill to create a new national holiday was run through Congress and approved, unanimously. The day to honor organized labor and the American worker was set as the first Monday in September, rather than on May 1- May Day- the International Workers Day.

And that, my friends, is how America got Labor Day.

Almost....There's a little more to the story. Peter J. McGuire, a labor leader from New York was in Toronto in 1882. In 1872 Canada had enacted the Trade Union Act, which protected union activity in Canada. Seeing a festival that celebrated organized labor in Canada, McGuire brought the concept back to New York. The first unofficial labor day was held in New York on September 5, 1882.

By the way...Eugene Debs, the leader of the strike that eventually led to the creation of Labor Day, was an avowed Socialist- the real deal, not just the pejorative some use to describe anyone who believes in degrees of government involvement. Eugene was devotee of Karl Marx- he read Marx while sitting in prison because of his involvement in the Pullman strike. And not only did Debs become a Socialist, he ran for President as a Socialist several times, and was imprisoned a second time during the Red Scare of the late 1910's. Conservative Republican President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs...and had him over for a visit at the White House.

As a sidebar; when I was a senior in high school my American History teacher gave us an assignment to write an essay about the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. The Progressives splintered off from the Republican Party, and were led by figures such as "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, and later by former President Teddy Roosevelt and the "Bull Moose" Party. I chose to write about Eugene Debs. First I got a tongue lashing from my teacher, an ex Marine who thought I was a damned idiot who didn't know the difference between a Progressive and a Socialist.

Then he gave me an "F" on my paper.

I bring that up because there's a subculture out there, led by the usual pinheads on the Far Right, who haven't a clue of the difference between a Progressive and a Socialist either. And I just want to pass that "F" on to them, because they are as intellectually lazy as I was when I was seventeen years old.

So...what did we learn? We got to celebrate Labor Day in the United States because (1) It was a good idea we borrowed from Canada. (2) A REAL socialist triggered the events that led to its creation in this country as a national holiday .(3) Progressives were once a splinter group spawned by the Republican Party. And (4) Conservative Republican Warren G. Harding once "palled around" with an avowed Socialist...and a jailbird.

Have a Happy Labor Day!


Sue said...

what a great story and history lesson! I learned alot of interesting new facts, thanks Hugh!

Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

It's a story that too few people know anything about. And to be honest, I really didn't know much about the history of Labor was worth a repost.

tnlib said...

Good story there. I always enjoy learning a little history and I like the personal touch.

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