Labor Day – it’s almost here. It’s always the first Monday in September, the final party day of the summer that ushers in the autumn season. What benevolent politician should we credit for coming up with a free day off (long weekend actually) in recognition of our nation’s hard-working labor force? A patriotic statesman, perhaps, who understands and appreciates the sweat and toil of those who have built our great nation?
Well, not quite. President Grover Cleveland may have signed the decree, but it was motivated much more by political pragmatism than altruism. In the summer of 1894 (when Labor Day became a federal holiday) the nation was in the midst of a deep economic depression. Unemployment was reaching alarming rates and those workers who could find jobs faced long, exhausting work hours and drastically reduced wages. Labor unions were organizing strikes and business owners were forced to shutter their plants. This was a time of tension and strife, hardly a time for celebrating workers.
In Chicago one prominent industrialist had devised a creative plan to keep his business operating and his employees working during these difficult times. His name was George Pullman. He had built one of the premier manufacturing companies in the nation – The Palace Car Company. Inspired by the faith-motivated garden city movement that was reforming employment practices in Europe, Pullman had built an entire self-sustaining town around his railroad car factory. (He named it Pullman!) It provided his employees and their families all the amenities of healthy community life – attractive housing, convenient shopping, recreation facilities, even a church for worship. George became convinced that a well-run company town not only fostered loyalty among employees but increased profitability as well. Cadbury, Lever and other industry leaders in England had proven this.
But unlike Cadbury and Lever whose guiding value was “love of God and neighbor,” Pullman saw this garden city strategy primarily as a profit-making tactic. Company housing, stores, even the church building, were income producing cost centers. And it worked – for a time. But as the depression dragged on, Pullman maintained company profitability by extending work hours and cutting wages. His employees might have understood these measures as necessary tightening of the corporate belt had he eased rental rates on company housing or reduced prices on basic necessities at the company store. But he did neither. He continued to operate these amenities as profit-making enterprises. Consequently, employee loyalty evaporated. The final straw, however, was when it was discovered that Pullman and his stockholders were making handsome earnings while workers sunk deeper and deeper in debt. Workers quickly organized a strike, bringing production to a halt.
Striking Pullman workers were soon joined by other labor union members in sympathy strikes. This cascade threatened to bring national rail transportation to a standstill. Riots ensued, then violent eruptions. Train cars were burned and engines destroyed. Police and armed security guards fired on the surging mobs of demonstrators, killing and wounding several protesters, which further inflamed the violence. Ten thousand state militia and federal troops were sent in to quell the uprising. More deaths occurred. The outcry went national.
President Cleveland had to do something drastic. Deploying more troops was not the answer. That failing strategy was costing him serious losses in popularity polls. Giving beleaguered workers a long weekend off could help calm the tensions, he reasoned. A special day of recognition, an olive branch of sorts, might soothe some of the wounds that hard-working citizens were experiencing. And so Labor Day became a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers... a national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” A worthy tribute, yes, but mostly a day to pause from conflict and toil, to play and relax, to eat and drink, to enjoy family and friends. And now, more than a century later, it remains a day of thanksgiving for the God-ordained role of work.
(By the way, President Cleveland lost his re-election bid)