Labor Day Truths

Posted on 5 September 2010 Sunday

During the economic panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demand for their train cars plummeted and the company’s revenue dropped. A delegation of workers complained of the low wages and twelve-hour workdays, and that the corporation that operated the town of Pullman didn’t decrease rents, but company owner George Pullman “loftily declined to talk with them.”   In May, they began the most famous and far reaching labor conflict in US History.

Many of the workers were already members of the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott in which union members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. The strike effectively shut down production in the Pullman factories and led to a lockout. Railroad workers across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars onto trains. The ARU declared that if switchmen were disciplined for the boycott, the entire ARU would strike in sympathy.

The boycott was launched on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars. Adding fuel to the fire the railroad companies began hiring replacement workers (that is, strikebreakers), which only increased hostilities.

After the Civil War, George Pullman began hiring Blacks to work as porters on the pullman cars and this job quickly grew to become one of the most prestigious jobs a Black man could have. Nonetheless, this same Black man was denied access to the ARU and local railroad unions.  Given their treatment by the ARU, Black workers crossed the picket line to break the strike. They were also hired by George Pullman as replacement workers. These actions were enough to keep Pullman trains running on the east coast.

On June 29, 1894, Debs hosted a peaceful gathering to obtain support for the strike from fellow railroad workers at Blue Island, Illinois. Afterward groups within the crowd became enraged and set fire to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive. Elsewhere in the United States, sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking strikebreakers. This increased national attention to the matter and fueled the demand for federal action.

The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail, ignored a federal injunction and represented a threat to public safety. The arrival of the military and subsequent deaths of workers led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed, 8 of whom were black,  and 57 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage (about $8,818,000 adjusted for inflation to 2010).

The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City. It became a federal holiday

First Labor Day Parade

in 1894, when, following the deaths of these workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with the labor movement as a top political priority. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. The September date was chosen as Cleveland was concerned that aligning an American labor holiday with existing international May Day celebrations would stir up negative emotions .

In 1935 The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first Black union recognized by the American Federation of Labor.


The above article is a masterpiece of cutting and pasting. Although Wikipedia did a nice job of providing background information, it took quite a bit of digging to uncover the relationship between Blacks and the ARU. Many, many sources I read credit Blacks with causing the failure of the Pullman Strike, but they neglect to cite the fact that Blacks were refused admittance to the American Railway Union. Without the protection of this organization, why support them in a strike?

“In every truth, the beneficiaries of a system cannot be expected to destroy it.”
A. Philip Randolph

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