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The observance of Labor Day began over 100 years ago. Conceived by America's labor unions as a testament to their cause, the legislation sanctioning the holiday was shepherded through Congress amid labor unrest and signed by President Grover Cleveland as a reluctant election-year compromise. Read about the turbulent circumstances of Labor Day's birth, browse News Hour segments on labor and the economy, and explore labor-related resources on the Internet.


Pullman, Illinois was a company town, founded in 1880 by George Pullman, president of the railroad sleeping car company. Pullman designed and built the town to stand as a utopian workers' community insulated from the moral (and political) seductions of nearby Chicago.

The town was strictly, almost feudally, organized: row houses for the assembly and craft workers; modest Victorians for the managers; and a luxurious hotel where Pullman himself lived and where visiting customers, suppliers, and salesman would lodge while in town.

Its residents all worked for the Pullman company, their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. The town, and the company, operated smoothly and successfully for more than a decade.

But in 1893, the Pullman company was caught in the nationwide economic depression. Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained endured wage cuts, even while rents in Pullman remained consistent. Take-home paychecks plummeted. See The Parable of Pullman

And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the striking workers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in.

The strike instantly became a national issue. President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike. Violence erupted, and two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago, but the strike was doomed.

On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over. Debs went to prison, his ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. Aside from the already existing American Federation of Labor and the various railroad brotherhoods, industrial workers' unions were effectively stamped out and remained so until the Great Depression.

It was not the last time Debs would find himself behind bars, either. Campaigning from his jail cell, Debs would later win almost a million votes for the Socialist ticket in the 1920 presidential race.

In an attempt to appease the nation's workers, Labor Day is born

The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.

In 1898, Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, called it "the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed...that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

Labor Day: a goodbye to summer

Almost a century since Gompers spoke those words, though, Labor Day is seen as the last long weekend of summer rather than a day for political organizing. In 1995, less than 15 percent of American workers belonged to unions, down from a high in the 1950's of nearly 50 percent, though nearly all have benefited from the victories of the Labor movement.

And everyone who can takes a vacation on the first Monday of September. Friends and families gather, and clog the highways, and the picnic grounds, and their own backyards -- and bid farewell to summer.


The Parable of Pullman

In 1894 the model town of Pullman became the storm center for one of the classic labor struggles in American social history. What began as a revolt of the Pullman Shops employees against wage cuts and oppressive company practices, escalated into a national railway workers' boycott directed against the handling of trains carrying Pullman cars. It was followed by federal intervention with almost half the U.S. Army at the service of the employers.

The use of army troops brought about a bitter dispute pitting the Governor of Illinois and the Mayor of Chicago against President Grover Cleveland, who had ordered the troops sent in. And that led to the eventual defeat of Cleveland in his bid for re-nomination by the Democratic Party two years later. In the process of this epic tragedy, people were killed, the American Railway Union was destroyed, the Pullman workers were forced back to work on the company's terms, and George Pullman became a reviled caricature of the hard-hearted and unjust corporate Tycoon---all in order to keep labor in its place.

Recipe for Disaster

A "recession," as we would call it now, gripped the nation's economy beginning in 1893. Orders for Pullman cars fell off and management began a program of lay-offs and wage cuts. The cuts, applied not to managerial employees but only to the hourly workers, averaged 25 percent. Since Pullman wages were close to the subsistence level, it was a recipe for disaster. The situation was all the more desperate for the workers who lived in the town, because the company refused to lower the rents. Even more galling, the company made sure it collected the rents---right out of the pay! The company's control of the town (and the people in it) was close to absolute. Even the Green Stone Church was the company's property. Its use was rented out for religious services for a fee. Pullman expected the church building to earn the usual six percent return on investment. Indeed, George Pullman, expected the church building to be rented by various denominations, their services to operate much like the shifts in his shops.

A Money Machine

Everything he put his hand to made money. In 1880 he commenced building the shops and the town on 4,300 acres of land (about six square miles) which he had bought for 800,000 dollars. By 1892 it was valued at 5 million.

Some 12,000 people lived in the town, which ran according to Pullman's rules. No liquor could be sold except at the Florence Hotel, where workers hardly ventured. There were numerous regulations designed to reinforce the town's image of industrious decorum. In 1885 the illustrious Prof. Richard Ely wrote in Harper's Weekly that the power exercised by Bismarck (the unifier of Germany), was "utterly insignificant when compared with the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman."

Declared one Pullman employee:

"We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell."

The Rev. William H. Carwardine, the Methodist minister in Pullman, characterized the town as a "civilized relic of European serfdom."

George Pullman Explains

Pullman rejected all those who considered him to be a benefactor or a philanthropist in his vision of the town. He described his intentions in practical business terms:

"That such advantages and surroundings made better workmen by removing from them the feeling of discontent and desire for change which so generally characterize the American workman; thus protecting the employer from loss of time and money consequent upon intemperance, labor strikes, and dissatisfaction which generally result from poverty and uncongenial home surroundings."

But Pullman failed to follow his own prescription. His wage cut policy during the winter of 1893-94 certainly induced "poverty and uncongenial home surroundings." Nor could the employees escape to lower rent housing in nearby Roseland, for the company gave employment preference to Pullman residents.

The Union Is Organized

Their recourse was to begin the formation of a local union of the American Railway Union in the Pullman shops. There were only about 3,300 workers left on the payroll in May of 1894, many of them on short hours. A 46-member committee from the union was sent to demand that Pullman rescind the cuts. They were met by Vice-President Thomas J. Wickes, and briefly addressed by George Pullman. He refused any action on the wage cuts, but promised to look into complaints about the behavior of foremen and other matters.

But, the very next day, May 10, 1894, three members of the committee were discharged. A mass meeting of the Pullman workers voted to strike. Picket lines were set up and production halted.

The strike wore on. George Pullman simply left town immediately after the meeting with the committee, heading to his summer home on the New Jersey seashore. In June, a national convention of the American Railway Union (ARU) took place in Chicago.

Rev. Carwardine Appeals

The delegates were addressed by the Rev. Carwardine, who described the worsening condition of the Pullman workers, and appealed for the convention to "act quickly, in the name of God and humanity." The convention sent a committee to see Wickes and propose arbitration of the dispute. Wickes refused.

Rebuffed in their efforts to resolve the dispute through arbitration, the ARU tried a new tactic. They voted to refuse to work any train that carried a Pullman car after June 26, unless the company had changed its position on arbitration.

Instead, the General Managers of the 24 railroads terminating in Chicago met with Wickes and agreed unanimously to support the Pullman Company and defy the ARU. Rail workers responded to the boycott call and would surely have prevailed in a matter of days, had not the Federal Government intervened on management's behalf.

Friends in High Places

Acting at the behest of his Attorney General, a former railroad attorney named Richard Olney, President Cleveland appointed a special counsel to deal with the strike on the grounds that U.S. mails were being impeded. Indeed they were, because the railroads were deliberately hooking Pullman cars to mail trains. Cleveland's choice for the special counsel was none other than Edward Walker, the attorney for the Milwaukee Railroad. Walker hired 4,000 strikebreakers and made them deputy marshals armed with badge and gun. Great masses of sympathetic workers, particularly in the Chicago area, responded by attacking the trains. There were casualties, trains were torched, and 12,000 federal troops deployed (approximately half the U.S. army), ostensibly to keep the peace, but surely to break the boycott.

The Strike Ends

An injunction was secured under which ARU president Eugene V.Debs and other leaders were sentenced to jail. On July 18, Pullman announced it would reopen the shops and hire only persons who would sign a "yellow dog" contract promising never to join a union while a Pullman employee. Thus ended the great Pullman Strike, but there were unexpected aftereffects. While serving his time in the Woodstock, Ill., jail, Debs decided that labor needed to win political power to match that of the employers. Accordingly, he became the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, receiving almost a million votes in 1912.

A young attorney for one of the railroads was outraged by the role of the General Managers. He quit the job, later to become a famous lawyer in the service of labor. His name was Clarence Darrow. Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld was incensed at Cleveland for putting the federal government at the service of the employers, and for rejecting Altgeld's plan to use his state militia to keep order, instead of federal troops. As the leader of the Illinois delegation to the Democratic Party Convention in 1896, Altgeld used his influence and blocked the re-nomination of Cleveland as the presidential candidate.


And George Pullman? He died two years after the strike, hated and fearful that even his tomb in Graceland Cemetery would be desecrated by an angry populace.



See also Celebrate Labor Day  The History of Labor Day

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