By – Scot Feldmeyer
BarryStaff of Cincinnati – Newsletter 9/5/11
What does Labor Day mean to you? Back in the 70’s it signaled the time to put away my white shoes and matching white belt until the next Memorial Day. But I didn’t really mind because I still had that spiffy polyester leisure suit to wear out on the town. For other people, Labor Day is the traditional end of summer celebrated by picnics, parades and one last dip in the pool. But what is Labor Day supposed to be?
Labor Day was started as a holiday to salute the American worker and, in particular, labor unions. The biggest strikes we hear about these days involve millionaire athletes trying to squeeze more money out of billionaire sports franchise owners. But back in the late 1800’s things got kind of crazy between labor unions and corporations. The big showdown started at the Pullman Company in Illinois. The company made railroad cars and when a big “Economic Panic” hit in 1893, the demand for railroad cars plummeted. The workers were given a cut in pay and this did not sit well with them seeing as how they were already working 16-hour days and were forced to rent housing and buy all of their food and goods from the Pullman company store. To make matters worse when a delegation of workers issued complaints, company owner George Pullman “loftily declined to talk with them.”
So they went on strike. Now the Pullman workers were members of the American Railway Union. So when they went on strike their fellow union members, about 125,000 workers, pretty much shut down railway traffic. When the railroad companies tried to hire replacement workers, the workers were attacked by union strikers. Well, one thing led to another and before you know it, buildings were being burned, trains were being derailed and people were getting killed.
Since the railroads carried the mail, President Grover Cleveland felt it was necessary to call in Federal Marshals and 12,000 army troops to quell the riots. In the fight that ensued 13 union members were killed, 57 were wounded and union members did about $9,000,000 worth of damage. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 right after the strike when President Grover Cleveland and Congress made appeasement of organized labor a top priority. Legislation for the holiday was pushed through Congress just six days after the strike ended.
So today we grill hotdogs and hamburgers and enjoy a day off in the shade because of a huge labor strike over 120 years ago. But here at BarryStaff we like to think of the day as a tribute to all of the workers who show up on time, do their jobs, and pay their taxes. Without those people, ourselves included, where would this country be?