A Holiday They Bled For: The True Patriots of Labor Day

militia outside arcade pullman

In 1894 the government, led by a corporate “pro-business” Democratic President, deployed federal troops against striking workers, killing 30 people and wounding 57. It was the Pullman Strike that led to the government’s attempt to appease labor, also known as Labor Day.

Grover Cleveland was the president then. Today he would a Koch aligned Scott Walker type. His actions during the Pullman Strike constituted a then unprecedented collaboration between business and government hoisted against the people. Cleveland was a conservative icon at the time. He was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats and it was the populists who opposed him (quite a change from today). He opposed tariffs, of course.

If politics today depress you, check this out. At the time of the Pullman Strike, the U.S. Attorney General had been a lawyer for the railroad and sat on the board of a railroad company (Dick Cheney/Halliburton and Enron). The railroad workers were refusing to operate the trains pulling a Pullman due to Pullman’s treatment of workers. So this U.S. Attorney, Richard Olney, first barred the workers from striking, threatening them with their jobs if they continued, and then when that didn’t work, he deployed federal troops against the workers. He claimed that their boycott against operating the trains with Pullman cars disrupted the federal mail, even though the workers offered to operate the trains with the mail so long as there wasn’t a Pullman car on the train.

The Pullman workers lived in a Pullman town, so when Pullman laid off massive amounts of workers and lowered the wages of those still working by 25% while refusing to lower rents, the workers were desperate for remedy. Pullman refused to negotiate with them or lower the rents — he even refused to meet with them. Instead, he headed off for his summer estate on the shores of New Jersey, and left guards around his Chicago mansion. (The 1% have always been up to the same tricks.) He was known to travel in a luxurious private car outfitted for him at a cost of $38,000.

His workers suffered in his company town — designed to make money for Pullman — that the press fawned over, praising Pullman’s “benevolence and vision”. The Pullman Museum elaborates:

Pullman ruled the town like a feudal baron. He prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings or open discussion. His inspectors regularly entered homes to inspect for cleanliness and could terminate leases on ten days notice. The church stood empty since no approved denomination would pay rent and no other congregation was allowed. Private charitable organizations were prohibited. Pullman employees declared “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”

So much for the benevolent master.

Contrast that with how Pullman was living: “In 1888, Pullman built a home, Castle Rest, on Pullman Island in Alexandria Bay in the Thousand Islands between New York and Ontario. He also maintained a home in Albion, New York; and one in Long Branch, New Jersey.”

Eventually, the desperate Pullman workers went on strike.

So the Pullman Strike presented a conservative Democratic president and his administration using the government to assist a corporation in screwing over the workers, also known as the people. The press of the time were against the workers. The workers were depicted as foreigners opposing the patriotism of the fabulous federal troops.

Proving that while times change, the insults stay the same, strikers were described as a “malodorous crowd of anarchist foreign trash” in Harper’s Weekly. They deserved every bayonet charge, every shooting. A minister agreed that such egregious destruction of property (non strikers joined the strikers and destroyed Pullman railroad cars) deserved killing.

Patriotism, ironically, comes from the Greek word for countryman, which would imply what we have in common with one another and the principles of our country. The original Tea Partiers were fighting corporate rule (unlike the modern day version who are puppets for the Koch brothers). Serving corporate profits is not the founding principle of this country.

Investigations were initiated and they determined that the operations of Pullman’s company town were “Un-American” and that Pullman’s actions were partly to blame for the strike:

A national commission formed to study causes of the 1894 strike found Pullman’s paternalism partly to blame and Pullman’s company town to be “un-American.” In 1898, Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was then annexed to Chicago.

Oh, irony. In the end, the “malodorous” foreign workers were the Real Americans.

It was with the blood of patriots that workers earned the right to not be treated like feudal serfs. Unions lend collective power to workers standing up to the entrenched power of corporations. You have the day off because some people died for your right to not be a slave.

Today, dismissive, paternalistic conservatives call patriots standing up for the same cause “thugs”. But when history tells the story of our struggles today, conservatives will be on the wrong side.


This article is dedicated to my Grandfather, a lifelong Democrat and proud union leader, who passed away shortly before the 2012 election. His teachings and values live on in his children, grandchildren and the many people whose freedom and liberty he protected and elevated as a union member. He knew and respected Republican George Romney. Mitt’s father knew that valuing labor as an asset was fundamental to success. Labor Day belongs to the people from all parties who honor a well-treated labor force as part of our country’s success story.

Additional Source: City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, By Donald L. Miller.

Image: Militia patrol outside of the Arcade Building.

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