In the latter part of the 19th Century, a new voice erupted in the public sphere: that of the worker. That voice shook the foundations of many a mansion, whose inhabitants realized the previously meek laborers who provided the backbone of their personal empires were beginning to grow a backbone of their own, and big changes were just over the horizon.
Resistance to this change was predictable, and our government was drafted by the powerful industrialists in an effort to crush the movement in its infancy. The resulting clash was nothing short of horrific. Blood was shed, lives were lost. But something else happened, too: visible and irrefutable evidence emerged that acting collectively brought power to those who had none by themselves. And that power could change everything.
Just to give you a glimpse of part of the movement that produced Labor Day, we'll look at the Pullman dispute:
Pullman, Illinois was a company town, founded in 1880 by George Pullman, president of the railroad sleeping car company. Pullman designed and built the town to stand as a utopian workers' community insulated from the moral (and political) seductions of nearby Chicago.
The town was strictly, almost feudally, organized: row houses for the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for the managers; and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visiting customers, suppliers, and salesman would lodge while in town.
Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.
But in 1893, the Pullman company was caught in the nationwide economic depression. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained endured wage cuts, even while rents in Pullman remained consistent. Take-home paychecks plummeted.
And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the striking workers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in.
The strike instantly became a national issue. President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, and two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago, but the strike was doomed.
This story was plastered across the front pages of newspapers across the country throughout the crisis. And just like today, op-eds and industry-funded opinion pieces created heroes, villains and looming disasters. But one thing couldn't be shaped or easily dismissed: Change was coming, and there was a new player in the game.
But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.
1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.
In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed...that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."
I know that many reading this question the role of organized labor in our 21st Century economy and political landscape. But there are still, even today, very powerful forces who would stifle the voice of the worker. Indeed, our supposedly representative government has taken on many of the attributes of 18th Century European Mercantilism, where government and big business developed a mutually-beneficial relationship that seldom concerned itself with the needs of the peasantry.
It very well may be that we need the voice of the worker now more than ever.
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