The Democratic Party of New Mexico celebrates Labor Day and the lasting contributions of working people to the history of our nation. We also celebrate the history of unions and the role of organized labor in bringing about the emergence of the middle class.
Labor’s many contributions include the eight hour day, the end of child labor, worker safety standards, health insurance, a cleaner environment, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, pensions, along with a higher standard of living and many other economic benefits for all Americans, whether or not they are members of unions.
At a time when America’s working people find those hard-won standards of living under attack, once again, we stand by the collective bargaining rights of labor here in New Mexico and across this great nation that our unions helped build. Organized labor is the bulwark of democracy and prosperity. We continue to work for fair play, a fair shot, and a fair share for all. We remember the lessons of the past and continue to fight for the future of all Americans. In the words of the traditional labor song, “we are fighting for our children, and we shall not be moved.”
The Pullman Strike and the History of Labor Day
The first Labor Day stemmed from the desire of the Central Labor Union of New York to create a public holiday for workers. It was celebrated by laborers in New York, Brooklyn and eastern New Jersey beginning in 1882. However, it was a national railway strike, centered in Chicago, and put down by military force during the economic depression that began in 1893 that led to the establishment of Labor Day as a national holiday.
The strike began at the company town of Pullman, Illinois, a model workers village conceived and built by George M. Pullman, owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, the manufacturer and management of Pullman railroad sleeping cars. As demand for sleeping cars fell in the economic downturn, Pullman laid off workers and drastically lowered wages without reducing the cost of rents and supplies in the company town where workers were required to live and shop.
Pullman’s town was built with the idea that its clean tree-lined streets, orderly row-houses, charming arcades, theater, library, park and other amenities would eliminate labor conflict. To aid in eradicating agitation and dissension, public free speech and outside newspapers, along with alcohol was prohibited in his perfect community, and company inspectors entered homes at will to enforce Pullman’s rules on and off the job. Laborers wives were told what they could, and could not grow, in their gardens. George Pullman also expected his model village to turn a profit, demanding no less than a 6 percent return from his employees, and the Pullman-run bank ensured that the fees were paid before wages were issued. When Pullman refused to lower rents for his houses, workers walked off their jobs on May 10, 1894.
Striking Pullman workers appealed to the American Railway Union for support. In June the ARU began boycotting Pullman, its 150,000 members refusing to handle Pullman Cars anywhere in the United States. The Railroads began firing union members, escalating the strike.
In July President Grover Cleveland ordered 14,000 Federal troops into Chicago to put down the strike. Violent confrontations ensued. By the beginning of August the strike was effectively broken, and the ARU crushed, but President Cleveland’s heavy-handed response led to national demonstrations against his actions. Congress rushed legislation to create a national workers holiday in an effort to diffuse the spiraling nation-wide conflict. The Federal holiday bill passed both houses of Congress unanimously and was signed into law by Cleveland in the six days following the end of the strike, establishing Labor Day as the first Monday in September.
An Ongoing Heritage
In the aftermath of the events of 1894, President Cleveland was not re-elected, one of the few sitting Presidents to be repudiated by his own party in American history. A national commission found Pullman’s feudal paternalism to be a central cause of the crisis, and the Illinois Supreme Court forced George M. Pullman to divest ownership of his town, which the Court termed “un-American.” The Erdman Act of 1898, the first national legislation to recognize the rights of labor and to create a framework for arbitration of labor disputes, ushered in the era the progressive reform. The collective bargaining rights sought under the American Railway’s Union’s model of industrial unionism, in which workers, regardless of craft, join together in a common labor union, fought by the Cleveland Administration, and backed by the Supreme Court during the Pullman Strike, were eventually recognized under the National Labor Relations Act, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935.
The Pullman Company again figured significantly in labor history when, after a protracted twelve year labor dispute in which it fought against the recognition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), signed a collective bargaining agreement with that Union in 1937, the first African American led labor organization chartered by the American Federation of Labor. The BSCP played a key role in the civil rights movement when, under the leadership of its President, A. Phillip Randolph, the union organized the 1963 March on Washington, often most remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Members of the labor movement continue to lead the ongoing fight to protect, not only the rights of working people and the economic security of all, but also civil and human rights for all of us, and America’s most cherished democratic values.
Pullman labor mural, S. 111th St., Chicago. Academy of Art Project, 1996 (top);
Federal troops confront strikers at Pullman, print, 1894 (right).