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History of Labor Day Holiday and Guide to Local Events

1882 Labor Day Parade, Union Square, NY

1882 Labor Day Parade, Union Square, NY

  • 1882 Labor Day Parade, Union Square, NY
  • Striking American Railway Union members confront Illinois National Guard troops
  • Grover Cleveland
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The first Monday of September is Labor Day. To most, it means a day off from work. And who is responsible for this? Why, those darn unions! 

Well, not directly. The day was first declared a federal holiday by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 as an effort to recognize labor unions and avoid further bloodshed from escalated protests and destruction resulting from the Pullman Strike.

The Pullman Strike was one of the largest labor strikes in our country's history that involved over 250,000 railroad workers over 27 states. It is also a landmark in American history as it marks the first time the United States government had to use federal troops to break up a strike. The conflict began with company owner, George Mortimer Pullman and issues of worker wages and living conditions. Mr. Pullman owned Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured sleeping cars and operated them under contract to the railroads. To house his workers, Pullman City was created. Pullman City was a company town, in which much, if not all the real estate, utilities, hospitals, and businesses within the borders of the city were owned by the company. All employees and their dependents were required to live in Pullman City and purchase its goods and services.

The model was arguably successful until a depression hit in 1893 causing Pullman to cut wages twenty five percent. However, he did not lower rents. If a worker went into debt, it was just taken out of his paycheck.

In May of 1894, three-thousand of Pullman's workers went on a 'wildcat' strike (a strike without union support) to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with wages and living conditions. Although initially not supported by any union, many of the strikers were part of the American Railroad Union, which was founded by Eugene V. Debs.

Mr. Debs tried in vain to get arbitration with Pullman officials and all workers agreed that any kind of boycott would only be implemented in the case that all other deliberations had failed. By early June of 1894, it was apparent that Pullman representatives would not meet under any circumstances with union officials. Feeling there was little choice, on June 26, 1894, with the ARU sympathetic to their fellow union members mistreatment, some railroad workers refused to allow any train with Pullman cars to move (unless, as instructed by Debs, they carried US mail. They did not want to invoke the wrath of the federal government for disrupting mail service).

The response was for the railroad companies to form the General Managers Association. In an effort to exert their power, they declared that any switchman who refused to move cars would be fired.

The ARU countered by stating that any switchman that was fired for refusing to move a Pullman car would result in all union members walking off the job. By June 29, 1894, fifty-thousand men had quit their jobs. Groundswells of strikers and supporters began stopping trains which sparked numerous violent confrontations.

The GMA wanted the federal government to intervene and break the strike. However, President Grover Cleveland only supported sending in troops at the request of the state's governor.

The Illinois governor at the time was John P. Altgeld. He was hesitant to request troops as he believed the workers should have the same rights as their employers. Fearing a lack of support from the governor, the railroad companies began a smear campaign by flooding the local press with stories that made the ARU out to be a gang of violent and lawless individuals led by the 'radical' Debs. They also began sending in people to work on the railroads as strike breakers. Some of these 'scabs' were African American which further added fuel to racial tensions.

On the federal level, the GMA had a sympathizer in Attorney General Richard Olney who believed the railroads had a right to run things their own way, and if workers didn't like it, they could quit. He perpetuated the idea that the union strike movement was violent.

Unfortunately, he was proven right. With momentum building, Eugene Debs made a fateful trip to Blue Island, IL on June 29, 1894 to try and gain support from the railroad workers there to support the strike. After an initially peaceful rally, the strikers worked themselves up into a mob of anger and began destroying the railroad yards and setting fire to anything that moved.

This gave Attorney General Olney grounds to champion federal intervention to break up the strike. From his standpoint, the strike was not only unjust, but a danger to the overall welfare of the nation. On July 2, 1894, Olney was granted an injunction by a federal court that declared the strike illegal and that all workers should return to work. Federal troops were sent in to ensure mail delivery was not being disrupted. Enraged by federal troop presence, strikers began to riot on July 3, 1894 and once again, destroyed property and dragged rail cars across the tracks, effectively obstructing the passage of mail. On July 7, another mob stopped soldiers escorting a train through the downtown Chicago area. Many were killed or wounded from gunfire.

Throughout the duration of the strike 13 strikers were killed and 57 wounded. An estimated 6,000 railroad workers did in excess of $340,000 worth of property damage.

Only July 10, the arrest of Eugene Debs and three other union leaders for interfering with US mail marked the end of the strike, as the leaders realized the intervention of federal troops was a death blow to the movement. The strike was officially ended on July 11, 1894 “with the single condition that employees be rehired at their former jobs”. About two-thirds returned to their old jobs, at their old pay. Many were now blacklisted or had to move to find a similar position held before the strike. The Pullman company introduced “Yellow Dog” contracts, which is an agreement signed by an employee that indicates they are not a member of a labor union and joining one in the future will be sufficient grounds for termination.

While the strike did not meet its goals, it did underline the growing disparity between owners and employees, management and labor, the controllers and the controlled. Making reconciliation with the labor movement a political top priority, President Cleveland, with the unanimous support of Congress, signed “Labor Day” into law, a mere six days after the end of the strike.

Labor Day was an appeasement to the labor unions, from a president who just got done calling in troops on them.

Since the first labor day, the holiday has evolved more into an idea to pay tribute to the working men and woman of the country and to reward them with one last day off to enjoy the summer before the weather turns colder. San Diegans have many options to enjoy their labor day extended weekend (that doesn't involve setting fire to railroad cars):

SeaWorld Summer Nights
Labor Day Weekend Sep. 3 - 5. Included with park admission, enjoy the Into the Blue fireworks finale, preceded nighttime special shows, including Shamu Rocks, Blue Horizons, Sea Lions Tonite, and don’t miss the Cirque de la Mer, the acrobatic extravaganza over water.

La Jolla Concert by the Sea
Sunday September 4 from 2 - 4 pm at Ellen Browning Scripps park at La Jolla Cove. Last in the summer series of family friendly concerts on the grass. Hot dogs, soda, ice cream and popcorn for sale.

Festival of Sail
September 2nd - 5th at San Diego Bay. This five day San Diego event includes live entertainment, cruises on San Diego Bay, cannon battles, sailing on racing yachts, over 150 arts and craft vendors, great food, pirates, and more.

Oceanside Labor Day Pier Swim and Paddle
Monday September 5. Register at 7 am, swim or paddle in the morning at various start times. Fun annual swim to the end of the original Oceanside pier and back.

Hornblower Cruises
Featuring a Labor Day BBQ & Beer Cruise on Monday or come aboard any other cruises throughout the weekend. One and two hour Harbor Cruises & Sea Lion Adventures