Sunday, September 06, 2009

Happy Labor Day

by Wilfred Bereswill

So summer is coming to an end. Pretty much that's what Labor Day is, a symbolic end to summer. Officially, however, Labor day has a bit of a bloody history. After a little research on Wikipedia, and a few other places, here's what I found out about Labor Day.

During the economic panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demands for their train cars plummeted and the company's revenue dropped. Things escalated into a strike when workers continued to complain and owner, George Pullman refused to talk to them. 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 which only increased hostilities. Many African Americans, fearful that the racism expressed by the American Railway Union would lock them out of another labor market, crossed the picket line to break the strike; that added a racially charged tone to the conflict.

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 led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage.

A national commission formed to study causes of the 1894 strike found Pullman's paternalism partly to blame and Pullman's company town to be "un-American." In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was annexed to Chicago[citation needed].

Pullman thereafter remained unpopular with labor, and when he died in 1897, he was buried in Graceland Cemetery at night in a lead-lined coffin within an elaborately reinforced steel-and-concrete vault. Several tons of cement were poured to prevent his body from being exhumed and desecrated by labor activists.

In the aftermath of the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the US military and US Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with Labor 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.

But back to the end of summer. This weekend caps a St. Louis summer that I have never seen before. This has to rank up there with the coolest of summers in St. Louis History. It has been glorious. It's too bad I haven't been able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked to. Starting a new job left me without the 6 weeks of vacation that I had grown used to. And since I need to save one day for Bouchercon, coming in a little over a month, I was forced to look out at the beautiful weather through my office windows. I will say, I've had the top down on my convertible since I bought it in late May.

On a lighter note, I was all ready to comment on how the St. Louis Cardinals swept the Pittsburg Pirates over the weekend. Albert Puhols put on a one man show, but alas, Ryan Franklin, closing pitcher for the Cardinals did something that he's only done twice this year. He blew the save and let the Pirates avoid the sweep. I will say, all weekend the Cardinal announcers gushed at how nice PNC Park and downtown Pittsburgh looked.

Lastly, I thought I'd leave you with a smile. Sometimes you see something and it makes you smile. THe video below did that for me. It combines one of my favorite songs, ingenuity and a sweet ending. I hope you enjoy it.

5 comments:

PatRemick said...

Hey Wilfred, Thanks for the history of why we have Labor Day!

We've barely had summer in NH -- a/c on only 3 days since June 21 and now we're into the glorious fall days, 40s and 50s at night and 70s during the day -- warning that winter is coming. Hope it makes the writing more productive!

Enjoy the day, everyone!

Jennie Bentley said...

Interesting stuff, Freddy. Thanks for sharing.

Nashville's had a very pleasant summer so far, too, knock on wood. It's only been once or twice that I've commented on how miserably hot it's been. We've only been in the 90s for a week or so here and there. Hopefully it's over, although we've been known to have 80+ degree temperatures until Halloween, so I'm not holding my breath. But so far, so good. :-)

Annette said...

Summer? I thought we rolled straight from spring to autumn this year. I'm not complaining, though. My electric bill has been a blessing without the AC.

Interesting history lesson. I'm thinking I may celebrate Labor Day with a walk on the rails-to-trails bike path near here. Actually, I was thinking of doing that anyway, but now it will have a special significance.

Happy Labor Day, Will, and all our Stiffs (and the backbloggers, too!)

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I was never very good at history, but I thought this was fairly interesting.

Happy Labor Day, everybody.

Joyce said...

Thanks for the history lesson!

As for the Pirates, here's the headline from the Post-Gazette today:

"Pirates clinch record 17th consecutive losing season"

So you can see beating them is no big deal.