Happy Labor Day!
By 1885, what began as a "workingmen's holiday" in New York became a nationwide celebration. On Monday, we celebrate the American worker. We celebrate ourselves.
Today Labor Day seems little more than a day off work, the unofficial end of summer as we transition into fall and lots of sales, sales and more sales. But, Labor Day began as a worker protest against a company that not only employed workers, but also controlled their lives.
The Pullman Company used the local Chicago South Side community as its worker pool and tightly controlled employee's living arrangements. Workers were banned from owning their own homes, were forced to rent living space from the company and rent, whatever amount the company demanded, was taken out of their paychecks.
The boiling point came when the company slashed employee wages without lowering rents. The newly formed American Railway Union (ARU) and its head, Eugene V. Debs, called for a series of wildcat strikes and boycotts against the Pullman Company that stopped railroad traffic going west of Detroit.
The company refused to give in to worker demands and a riot ensued that resulted in 37 deaths, 57 injured and $80 million in damages.
President Grover Cleveland signed a bill in June, 1894, that made Labor Day a national holiday. So, while you're eating burgers off the grill on Monday, thank those early union workers. The stand they took to improve the lives of workers across the country still resonates today.