MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events



Labor Day

1. International: Celebrated around the world as the beginning of summer, in comemeration of the Haymarket Massacre, on the first of May. For information on this holiday, see the entry for: May Day .

2. United States: Celebrated in the United States as the end of summer, on the first Monday of September.

Origins of U.S. Labour Day: In 1882, Peter J. McGuire of the Brotherhood of Carpenters, and Matthew Maguire of the International Association of Machinists, make a proposal to the Central Labor Union of New York that a celebration be held to honor the working class. Thier suggestion comes just five years after the Battle of the Viaduct in Chicago – where U.S. troops suppressed a strike with a hail of bullets killing 30 workers. In New York, the Central Labor Union agrees to thier proposals, and on September 5, 1882, 30,000 union workers march through New York City making for the first Labor Day demonstrations. By 1885, other labor unions in the major industrial centers throughout United States begin demonstrating on Labor Day.

In 1887, after the Haymarket and Bayview massacres, in an attempt to appease workers and calm the growing uproar throughout the nation, five U.S. states recognize Labor Day as a holiday. Several months later, 35 African-American sugar workers are shot dead for striking; the leaders of the strike are publicly hanged.

This day of working class solidarity and organisation, barely yet started, with the yoke of capitalist exploitation increasing its weight, begins to take on an even greater meaning, as class conflicts between the working class and capitalists flare up.

In July 6, 1892, steelworkers of the Amalgamated Association of Iron & Steel Workers, go on strike in Homestead Pennsylvania, after having their pay cut by up to 25 percent. Henry C. Frick, head of the Carnegie Steel Company, refuses to pay the workers thier due wages, and instead hires scabs to work the factory. The Pinkerton guards at the Carnegie steel mill move into the strike to break up the workers and let the scabs pass-through. The striking workers resist the guards attempts to let in the scabs, and a battle ensues. Three guards surrender in the melee, while others are beaten on by the wives of the workers – seven beaten to death. When the dust has settled U.S. government soldiers arrive to gain control over the town, eleven workers are shot to death. Just five days later, striking miners in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, dynamite the Frisco Mill, leaving it in ruins.

Over the next two years class conflicts become increasingly sharp, while unions lead workers in the struggle to define their position within capitalist society. These conflicts and struggles would reach their precipice in the Pullman strike, and results in nationwide recognition of Labour Day.

In 1894, the Pullman Railroad and landowning company has declining sales, and lays off hundreds of workers. Workers remaining see thier wages drastically cut, while the rent the workers are forced to pay the Company (all workers had to live on Pullman's land) remains the same. On May 7, the workers form a committee asking to have the rent lowered. Their requests are flatly refused, and three of the workers on the committee have their jobs terminated. Three days later the Pullman workers, organized into the American Railway Union (led by a young Eugene V. Debs), go on strike demanding lower rents and higher pay. Several weeks pass, with no compromises being made by Pullman. On June 26, in an outstanding step of workers solidarity, fellow Railroad workers throughout the country refuse to switch trains with Pullman cars. These workers are fired one after another, with every worker who takes their place continuing refusal to switch Pullman cars. Over 150,000 workers in twenty-seven states join the nation-wide strike, utterly paralyzing the nation's Railway system.

On July 2, outraged by their loss of control and frigthened by the clear strength of the working class, the U.S. government orders the leaders of the American Railway Union to stop all communications, speeches, and organisation of their union members on strike. On July 3, the strike has gained so much strength and popularity that President Grover Cleveland follows suit and declares striking a federal crime ; ordering 1,936 federal troops, in conjunction with 4,000 national guardsmen, 5,000 deputy marshals, 250 deputy sheriffs, and the 3,000 policemen of Chicago (for a total of a 14,186 strong armed government force), to forcibly disperse the striking workers. The soldiers begin flooding into the town from all directions, cautiously securing their position against workers completed cut off from thier leadership. Workers begin building defensive street barricades by tiping over rail cars. On July 7, troops stand eye to eye with the striking workers, the workers stand their ground, and the soldiers open fire, killing 34 workers, while starting fires that consume 700 railcars and seven buildings.

On August 3, 1894, the strike is declared over by the police who have established full domination over the city. Debs and 71 other workers are arrested and imprisoned, many workers are blacklisted and forced into exile, the American Railway Union is forcibly disbanded (it had appealed to the AFL for support, but was refused), and Pullman employees are forced to pledge to never organize themselves again, and go back to work without their rightful wages.

Six days later, the country in the midst of economic depression and a potential working class revolt, the U.S. Congress hastily makes Labor Day a national holiday. These struggles slowly begin the gradual improvement of working conditions for U.S. workers -- while more than a hundred years would pass and still workers would be killed for striking, working conditions gradually began to improve, and a few basic workers rights were established within the capitalist system. In over two hundred years, finally granting workers the full freedom capitalism can offer: the freedom to sell one's labour power to the highest bidder.

Transcribed by B. Baggins