Jon de Vos: Railroads and the origin of Labor Day |

Jon de Vos: Railroads and the origin of Labor Day

Jon de Vos
Friday Report

As Labor Day approaches, I’ve naturally been thinking a lot about railroad traffic. When it comes to getting there by train, the U.S. is tied with Turkey for last place with the fewest number of passenger-train miles per inhabitant. There are 32 countries that log three billion or more passenger-miles annually.

Each year, every Japanese salaryman and woman travels more than 1,200 miles by rail, compared to an American average of fewer than 50 miles per person. England lies in the middle, but even so, the average Briton uses the train 200 times more often than the average American. Amtrak’s subsidy in 2007 was just more than a billion dollars but almost all nations subsidize their rail service. Conversely, and also unsurprisingly, the U.S. leads the world in the sheer volume of goods and materials transported by rail.

So, by now you’ve asked yourself the obvious question. What does Labor Day have to do with the railroads? Answer: almost everything.

Pretend that the humdrum reality in front of you is shimmering back in time to 1892. We’ve shimmered our way back to Pullman, Illinois at a period in American history when the automobile was only a rumor, electricity was only in factories, and horses outnumbered people. Whoa, look at me, I have a walrus moustache! My name is Eugene Pullman and I build the finest passenger railcars in America. Hooking my thumbs into my waistcoat, I look out proudly over the town that bears my name. Smoke spewing from the factory dims the view of the rows and rows of my houses occupied by workers whose rent the Pullman Bank deducts from their pay. They shop at Pullman stores and eat at Pullman cafeterias, all on credit withheld from wages.

Very little actual money changes hands in this new slavery, I chuckle at their plight and light a foot-long Havana with a hundred-dollar bill. Life’s been good to me, so far.

My city has been heralded as a utopian worker’s community. My plan was to control the costs of labor while keeping the devil’s unions at bay and up north in Chicago where they belonged.

The sweetness turned bitter a year later in 1893, as a nationwide economic depression caused a sharp decline in the demand for rail passenger cars. The Pullman factory laid off hundreds of workers and slashed the wages of the survivors while keeping prices and rents the same. In retaliation, the workers went on strike. That same year, Eugene V. Debs, a tenacious fighter for the rights of industrial workers everywhere, and president of the 150,000-member strong American Railway Union, carried the fight to the front gates of Pullman’s factory. Riots and looting broke out; the factory was damaged by fire and the melee quickly gained national attention and growing support from affiliated unions.

President Grover Cleveland, under pressure from interrupted mail trains and wealthy railroad magnates, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops quell the rioters. Two men were killed when Federal marshals fired a volley into a crowd of protestors, breaking the backbone of the strike. Debs was jailed and the American Railway Union was disbanded by presidential decree. The strike officially ended on Aug. 3, 1894. Returning Pullman employees signed a contract that they would never again unionize.

The president’s brutal tactics became soundly criticized around the nation, raising the ire of the nation’s workers. In an election-year attempt at appeasing them, Cleveland rushed legislation through both houses of Congress to establish the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a national holiday honoring the workingman. He affixed his signature to the bill just six days after his troops broke the Pullman strike and three months before his defeat in the 1894 election.

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