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How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday

August 27, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

The dramatic origin story behind a favorite end-of-summer long weekend.

Today many Americans see of that first Labor Day celebration.

Throughout the 1880s, labor strikes became increasingly common, with workers protesting their long hours and difficult, sometimes even dangerous, working conditions. In May 1886, the growing tensions between labor and capital exploded into violence during a protest rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Eight anarchists were eventually convicted on murder charges and four were executed.

After the Haymarket Riot, labor organizers and socialists in countries around the world began celebrating May 1 as Workers Day—an occasion U.S. government officials had no interest in sanctioning. Meanwhile, other cities had followed New York’s lead in holding Labor Day celebrations in early September. In 1887, Oregon became the first state to make it an official holiday; by 1894, 22 other states had passed similar legislation.

Outbreak of the Pullman Strike

A mob burning freight cars during the Pullman Strike in Chicago, 1894.

In 1893, during a nationwide economic recession, George Pullman laid off hundreds of employees and cut wages for many of the remaining workers at his namesake railroad sleeping car company by some 30 percent. Meanwhile, he refused to lower rents or store prices in Pullman, Illinois, the company town south of Chicago where many of his employees lived.

Angry Pullman workers walked out in May 1894, and the following month, the American Railway Union (ARU) and its leader, Eugene V. Debs, declared a sympathy boycott of all trains using Pullman cars.

The Pullman strike effectively halted rail traffic and commerce in 27 states stretching from Chicago to the West Coast, driving the General Managers Association (GMA), a group that represented Chicago’s railroad companies, to seek help from the federal government in shutting the strike down.

Federal Injunction, Troops and Violence

Burned freight and coal cars lining the expanse of the Panhandle Railroad, during the Pullman Railway Union strikes in Chicago, July 1894.

On June 29, some crowd members attending a Debs speech in Blue Island, Illinois, set fires to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive attached to a U.S. mail train. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney used the incident as an excuse to ask for an injunction against the strike and its leaders from the federal district court in Chicago, which he got on July 2.

“This was the turning point, because it enjoined the ARU and Debs …read more


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