The Roots of Labor Day

With the strike growing, on June 27, 1894, Congress passed legislation designating Labor Day as a federal holiday.

President Obama on Feb. 19 designated a landmark site of the U.S. labor movement on Chicago's South Side as a national monument. The 200-acre Pullman National Monument is the site of the town erected by George Mortimer Pullman's Pullman Palace Car Company to house railcar manufacturing workers and their families. It was a "completely planned model community representing a departure from the overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions found in working-class districts in other 19th century industrial cities and towns," according to the National Park Service.

Pullman introduced sleeper cars to American railroads, and he envisioned the town as a way to attract highly skilled craftsmen to work in his factories. His company also recruited the sleeping cars' first porters, waiters, and maids from the population of former house slaves.

The president's proclamation says the model town of Pullman "is considered the first planned industrial community in the United States, and served as both an influential model and a cautionary tale for subsequent industrial developments." The company owned every building and charged rents that would ensure a return on its investment in building the town. The town's "larger, more ornate and finely finished houses on Arcade Row were reserved for company officers, while junior workers resided in smaller, simpler row houses, and single and unskilled workers resided in tenement blocks with less ornamentation located farther away from the town’s public face."

The company's orders declined during a depression that began in 1893, and when the company cut its workers' wages but not the rent it charged them, the Pullman strike of 1894 began. American Railway Union members boycotted Pullman cars, which disrupted rail traffic across much of the country and impeded federal mail delivery. The United States secured a court injunction declaring the strike illegal under the Sherman Antitrust Act and President Grover Cleveland intervened with federal troops, bringing the strike to a violent end.

With the strike growing, on June 27, 1894, Congress passed legislation designating Labor Day as a federal holiday, and Cleveland signed the bill the following day.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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