Traditional Values, Progressive Thinking – Celebrating Labor Day

Mayor Gary Graham

Mayor Gary Graham

The old saying that the older we get the quicker time flies by is very true.  It seems as though the summer season just began and now it’s almost over.  The children are back in school and Labor Day is here.

On Monday, September 5, Americans across the country will celebrate Labor Day.  While many citizens will relax, travel and spend time with their families, it is also important for us to reflect on the historical significance of this holiday.

Labor Day has been celebrated on the first Monday in September in the United States since the 1880s.  Over the years, the holiday has evolved from a purely labor union celebration into a general last fling of summer festival.

The legislation, signed into law by President Grover Cleveland, which enacted Labor Day as a national holiday was forged amid labor unrest in which people lost their lives.

The events that led to the enactment of the legislation began in Pullman, Illinois. Pullman was founded in 1880 by George Pullman, president of the railroad sleeping car company.  Its residents all worked for the Pullman Company. Unfortunately, in 1893, a nationwide economic depression affected the company and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees.  Those who remained endured wage cuts, while rents in Pullman remained consistent. Eventually, the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by young Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the striking workers and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars.  Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars soon began.

President Grover Cleveland, faced with nervous railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops to break the strike.  Violence erupted and two men were killed when U.S. Deputy Marshalls fired on protesters in Kensington, near Chicago.

On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over.  Debs went to prison, his ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees signed a pledge that they would never again unionize.  Aside from the already existing American Federation of Labor and the various railroad brotherhoods, industrial workers’ unions were effectively stamped out and remained so until the Great Depression.

After the events surrounding the Pullman strike, protests against President Cleveland’s harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation’s workers a top political priority.  In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland’s desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born.

Today, Labor Day is generally regarded simply as a day of rest.  Political demonstrations are rare.  Modern day forms of celebration include picnics, barbecues, fireworks displays, water activities, and public art events.  Families with school-age children frequently take advantage of the long weekend to make that last trip of summer.

I hope that you and your family take advantage of the last long weekend of summer and have a safe and pleasant Labor Day.  The strong working relationship between City Hall and the residents we serve is yet another example of why O’Fallon is such a great community in which to live.