What Does Labor Day Have To Do With Unions? You'd Be Surprised!

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Pullman strikers outside Arcade Building in Pu...Image via Wikipedia

"Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; make it hot by striking" - William B. Sprague

Unions are bad....aren't they?

Back when my father was entering the workforce, finding a "good job" meant finding a union job. Since the beginning of organized labor in America during the 1820's, unions have provided a way for workers to join together in order to improve their employment conditions and to protect themselves from being exploited. The workers who are a part of the union gather together in order to collectively bargain for a mutually beneficial labor contract with an employer.

The labor unions have been around almost as long as America has. In fact, in earlier times, unions were viewed as a positive thing for workers and the communities they serve. Because of the large amount of power that a group of workers who are united have, they often helped ensure safe working conditions and fair wages for all workers.

The holiday that marks the end of summer, Labor Day, was created by the labor movement and was designed as a holiday that celebrates the achievements of the American worker. Union labor helped to build our country and make it strong, and so the first Monday in September is set aside in recognition of the contributions that workers make to our nation's prosperity and growth.

Did you know that the first Labor Day was celebrated on September 5, 1882?

Neither did I.

I was surprised to learn that the first Labor Day was organized and celebrated by the members of the Central Labor Union in Boston. It wasn't until 1894, a little over a decade later, that the holiday gained federal recognition after the U.S. Military was responsible for the death or injury of many striking workers.

Here is a look back at what happened:

During the infamous Pullman strike, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike due to bad working conditions. The company cut their workers wages drastically and forced them to work sixteen hour days. They blamed the working conditions on the poor sales of the railroad cars that they produced. Even though the company asked the workers to understand their situation, they refused to lower the price of the goods in the company store or the rent on the workers' housing.

You have to keep in mind that back then, people who worked for large factories, railroads and the like were often given small row type housing and a line of credit at a company provided store. After their pay was calculated, the employer would subtract the price of rent and the amount that was owed to the store from the workers' wages. Many companies would inflate the price of rent and goods at their store in an effort to keep workers in a constant state of debt, ensuring that they wouldn't be able to save enough money to find another job and therefore would be willing to tolerate all but the most egregious of mistreatments.

The workers at Pullman Palace Car Company were very upset about the change in their wages and working conditions. When they tried to have their concerns addressed, the company owner George Pullam refused to talk to them.

Many of those same workers were members of the American Railway Union and together with the other workers who were union members, they came up with a boycott type of strike. Basically what happened was that union members who worked on the railroad refused to run any trains that used Pullman cars.

To add additional pressure, railroad workers across the country also became involved and refused to switch any Pullman cars onto any trains. The railways were unable to force the workers to end the boycott because of the threat that the ARU and all of the railroad workers would start an all out strike in sympathy for the Pullman workers.

Within four days of the nation wide boycott, 125,000 workers that were employed by 29 railroad companies had stopped working rather than work with any trains that used Pullman cars. The railroad companies were left with a severe labor shortage and made the situation more tense by hiring new workers to replace the ones that were striking.

The unions and the workers held peaceful gatherings in an attempt to gain more support for their cause. During these protests and rallies, tension was high and tempers were short. Some of the union members became so enraged at the mistreatment that they set fire to railroad buildings and caused other problems. Soon, railroads workers in all parts of the country had decided to walk off the job in protest.

The delay in transportation that the strike caused put even more pressure on the Pullman company to address and resolve the concerns of their workers. Still, they refused and the railroad companies soon demanded that the Federal Government do something about the problem.

In response, President Grover Cleveland sent in United States Marshals along with 12,000 U.S. Army troops to break up the striking workers. The reason they gave for their involvement in the matter was that the strike interfered with the U.S. Mail Delivery and it was a threat to public security. Before it was all over, 13 striking workers were dead and another 57 were wounded.

As a result of the efforts of the Union members, the railroad workers and the workers at Pullman, a national commision was formed to study the issue and the Illinois Supreme Court determined that the whole concept of the "railroad town", where employees were forced to spend their wages to pay for overpriced goods and rent was Un-American and illegal. The Court forced the Pullman Company to give up ownership of the town and it then became the property of the city of Chicago.

In an attempt to make amends for the tragedy that occurred and for the government's role in it, President Cleveland pushed through legislation to make Labor Day a national holiday and as a way to honor union labor and the workers that keep our country running.

So, next week when you are firing up your grill for a Labor Day cookout, take a moment to remember the railroad employees who had the courage to fight against the companies that wanted to exploit them. In spite of great adversity, they refused to sit down and be quiet. They knew that if they all stood together, they couldn't fail.

If not for their efforts,and the work of many other unions and workers who demanded to be treated fairly, many of the labor laws and protections that we take for granted today would never have been enacted.

Are you or any of your family members affiliated with a Union? What do you think about the Pullman strike? Let me know in the comments.

By Melissa Kennedy- Melissa is a 9 year blog veteran and a freelance writer for ManufacturingWorkersBlog. Along with helping others find the job of their dreams, she enjoys computer geekery, raising a teenager, supporting her local library, writing about herself in the third person and working on her next novel.

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