I was born on Labor Day in Chicago, the Paris of the American labor movement, the cool place to be if phrases like “class war” didn’t bug you. My home town should have been called “bloody Chicago” for its violent history of riots, massacres and pitched battles between workmen and National Guard scabs. The city’s secular shrines include Haymarket Square, the site of an 1886 workers’ protest meeting where a bomb was thrown at the police and four anarchists wrongly hanged for the crime (and where a statue to the dead cops was blown up so often it’s now housed inside police hq.)… the field in south Chicago where police shot down ten strikers at the 1937 Republic Steel massacre (my mother nursed some of the wounded)… the convention hall at Clark and Erie Streets where in 1905 “Big Bill” Haywood founded the anarchist IWW- International Workers of the World, Joe Hill’s “One Big Union”. Indeed, Chicago’s elegant, lake-facing Sheridan Road, today lined with luxury condos, originally was paved to rush Federal troops to break an 1894 railway workers strike.
That Chicago-based Pullman railroad cars workers’ strike is the reason we enjoy Labor Day’s jamboree of barbecues and shopping sprees. In 1894 company boss George Pullman slashed the pay of 4000 of his lowest-paid workers who lived in his “model village” (company town) on Chicago’s outskirts. The men struck spontaneously “wildcat”.
America’s labor saint, Eugene Victor Debs, co-founder of the new American Railway Union (ARU), called for a boycott which mushroomed into a national stoppage of all the railroads west of Detroit. Vicious guerrilla war between workers and their families against local and federal militias erupted all along the railway tracks.
Class war! Rebellion! Anarchy!
The Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, sent in federal troops and marshals who shot and bayoneted the strikers and their friends. There had been plenty of violent boss/worker confrontations in America before. But for some reason, this particular incident touched public opinion. President Cleveland, fearing a voter backlash, to conciliate organized labor, in a panic designated Labor Day as a federal holiday.
Thank you George Pullman.
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.