The year was 1880 — a time when the world thundered to the beat of steam engines pounding along newly laid rails, when black smoke, brass rivets and flaming night skies were contentedly looked upon as “signs of industry.” Having just emerged from the Civil War, America was busy rebuilding itself in steel and iron, its factories hammering raw ore into the industrial powerhouse that it would soon become.
Steel tycoons like Andrew Carnagie, bankers like J.P. Morgan and oil barons like J.D. Rockefeller were billed as “the men who built America.” And doubtless, many of them thought of themselves that way; just as many “we built that” tycoons do today. But these archetypal monopoly men, in their tailored suits and monocles, were understandably a bit loathe to swing a hammer themselves. For that, they needed men as hard as the steel they drove.
With so many killed during the previous decade’s bloody conflict, this growing nation was well short of the labor it needed to build. So the call went out, all across the world: “Come to America, and build your fortune!” And many did, particularly those from troubled areas. By 1886, the United States even had a statue at its front gate, gifted by the equally industrious French.
The immortal words on this “New Colossus'” tablet: “Give me your tired, your poor; Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But even then, immigrants knew that “breathing free” in America would come at a cost: Indentured servitude to “the men who built America,” or death. Likely both.
Death in Haymarket Square
Just before completion of The Statue of Liberty, on May 4th, 1886, a riot broke out in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Known later as “The Haymarket Massacre,” it began as a fairly peaceful strike organized largely by The Knights of Labor. Their sole demand: establishment of an 8-hour workday at the same pay. At the time, 10-, 12- and 14-hour workdays weren’t uncommon…nor were the inevitable deaths that followed absolute worker exhaustion in the dangerous conditions of the time.
Corporations responded brutally to union activity of any kind, routinely blacklisting union members, hiring thugs and private security to beat them and burn them out of their homes, and even employing agent provocateurs to slip into the workers’ ranks, and exacerbate racial tensions between the immigrant workers to keep them from uniting.
And that was just in Chicago — conditions were little changed anywhere else. But Chicago was the epicenter of the movement. All over the nation, labor was organizing, fighting back against the brutal and deadly working conditions of the day. By
All across the nation, somewhere between 300,000 and half a million workers across the United States (largely organized by the Knights) went on strike on May 1st with the rallying cry “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay!” About 10,000 striking workers filled the streets of both New York and Milwaukee, about 11,000 in Detroit, and a crushing 30,000 to 40,000 in Chicago, where the whole thing started. All told, about 80,000 people participated in the Chicago strike, bringing those who relied on the vital industrial hub to their knees.
Things went fairly peacefully for about three days. But, on May 3rd, a group of striking workers rushed the “strikebreakers” or “scabs” leaving the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company gates at the end of the workday, intent on confronting them. Just as they had many times before. But after the last couple days, police (some said employed by McCormick) had had it.
Without provocation, they opened fire on the crowd, killing six people. That night, this flier went out:
The May 4th rally began peacefully enough, in the dimming light of evening. Somewhere between 600 and 3,000 people gathered in Haymarket Square, and police watched. All sides expected war. One of them was a labor activist named August Spies, who said this in a speech:
“There seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called ‘law and order.’ However, let me tell you at the beginning that this meeting has not been called for any such purpose. “
After Spies’ speech, the Chicago weather started to turn sour. Many left, leaving only the most hardened behind. Fiery speeches were given afterward by anarchists, becoming ever angrier and more vehement. By 10:30 that night, the police had, again, had enough. They advanced on the remaining crowd (yet to act in any violent manner) ordering them to disperse. Inspector John Bonfield:
“I command you [to the speaker] in the name of the law to desist, and you [addressing the crowd] to disperse.”
The police advanced on the crowd…but something landed in their midst. A small, metal container with a short, sputtering fuse. The bomb exploded, instantly killing one officer and mortally wounding seven others.
Gunfire erupted, with neither side knowing who fired first. Bullets ripped across the Square. within five minutes, the Square was empty, apart from seven dead police officers, a further 60 wounded officers, and by some estimates as many as 50 dead or wounded protesters. Many of the police’s casualty were the result of crossfire in the darkness from other officers; at least one report has it that the officers reloaded and continued to chase fleeing protesters, gunning them down as they ran.
The Chicago Tribune called it a “scene of wild carnage.”
August Spies and seven others were later found guilty of conspiracy and murder. Seven were sentenced to death by hanging. Two sentences were committed, and one committed suicide in his cell before his hanging using a smuggled-in blasting cap in his mouth. He blew half his face off, and died screaming after six hours in agony. No anesthetic or painkiller was rendered.
They got their 8-hour workday.
The Statue of Liberty was finished six months later.
Creation of Labor Day…Almost
The Haymarket Massacre shook the entire world to its core, bitterly dividing it between Labor (associated with the anarchists of the massacre) and everyone else. From America, to Europe to Russia, it became a rallying cry for oppressed workers, labor unions and everyone else trod beneath the moneyed heels of the Men Who Build…Everything.
In Europe, May 1st or “May Day” had long been celebrated as a spring holiday of pagan tradition; after Haymarket, union leaders and socialists worldwide re-formed it as “International Workers’ Day.” It is still celebrated as such on May 1st in more than 80 countries, where it is often an official holiday comparable to our own Labor Day.
But, not here in the Americas.
The idea of a day recognizing labor goes back to at least 1882, before the Massacre. Canada already had its own Labour Day on the first Monday of September, the last day of the summer holiday season. But it wasn’t until after the Haymarket Massacre that Americans would come to adopt the practice; by 1894, it was an official holiday in over 30 states. But not at the Federal level. It would take another massacre to see that happen.
The Pullman Strike of 1894
The economy had taken a dip and near crash in the last few years, culminating in a massive stock drop called the Panic of 1893. Demand for train travel and train passenger cars dropped, and the Pullman Palace Car Company had to cut costs. They did so by massively cutting over 4,000 workers’ wages.
What made this even worse was that Pullman’s employees lived in a “company town,” itself named Pullman. The company had built all the houses, had built the entire town, and charged employees rent to stay there. After the wage cut, workers found that they couldn’t afford to both pay Pullman’s rent and eat. George Pullman, owner of the company, refused to either lower rent or go into arbitration.
Many of the workers joined the American Railway Union, which got their backs by organizing a boycott of Pullman. The ARU was already the leading union for railways workers of all kinds, and instructed its railway union members to refuse to pull, service or maintain any Pullman cars. The nation ground to a halt.
Fortunately, the Monopoly Men had a friend upstairs by the name of Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland was a Democrat in an era before the word became near-synonymous with “liberal” or “progressive.” Back then, there really was such a thing as a “conservative democrat,” and Bourbon Democrats were it. Cleveland was in the pocket of big business in a big way, and his fiscal conservatism and austerity platforms made him an icon of conservatives of the day. And Grover wanted his friends’ trains moving.
He directed his attorney general to file a Federal injunction against union leaders organizing the strike, barring them from supporting it under the auspices that it was a threat to “mail delivery and public safety.” But the AFL and other unions responded by doubling down, calling for a general strike of all union members, everywhere.
That’s when Grover sent the army.
Thousands of U.S. Marshals and over 12,000 Army troops commanded by Brigadier General Nelson Miles were sent upon the countryside like a plague of uniformed locusts. In Billings, Montana, a local Methodist minister named J.W. Jennings gave a sermon in which he compared the strike to The Boston Tea Party (there’s your irony for the day), and said the following of Grover Cleveland:
“[He has] abandoned the faith of our Jacksonian fathers. Rather than defending the rights of the people against aggression and oppressive corporations, [government party leaders] are the pliant tools of the codfish-monied aristocracy who seek to dominate this country.”
Nationwide, the Army and Police, working under Cleveland and his corporate friends’ orders, had murdered 30 people and seriously wounded at least 57 others.
Media coverage led by the industrial money’d interests in the North and Northeast spared no expense in terms of generating negative press about the strike. In (yet another) twist of irony, it was the South and Midwest that most strongly supported it.
In the end, the strike, under the weight of massive negative media portrayals and the brutality of the Army, was broken. Many of those who’d participated in it were fired, and at least one union organizer was arrested for “disruption of the mail.” He was later acquitted, represented by none other than the legendary Clarence Darrow.
But the Pullman Strike, whole broken, was not in vain.
The Aftermath, and Labor Day
After the trains were up and running, Cleveland convened a commission to study the causes of the strike. They found George Pullman himself to be at blame, partly for his refusal to negotiate, but also because his company didn’t have the right to run a company town in the first place. The commission called Pullman’s practices “Un-American,” and later forced him to divest in the town. It later became a suburb of Chicago, and is still part of its historic district today.
A mere six days after the Pullman Strike ended, in Grover Cleveland signed into law a new federal holiday, honoring the real Men Who Built America.
And the engines of industry steamed on.