August 21, 2012
Labor Day 2012: Remembering the Pullman Strike and the Dangers of Today
by UAW LUPA Advisory Council Chair John Davis
Since 1894 the first Monday in September has been celebrated as Labor Day – a day to recognize the contributions of workers to building this great nation. Through the years the day has reminded America of the sacrifices workers have made to build this nation.
In 1894 the employees of the Pullman Company went on strike protesting wage cuts and high rent. The workers lived in planned community built by Pullman. They worked and they paid the company rent and bought goods from a company store. Workers essentially worked for the company all day making the corporation rich, and then paid their wages for inflated cost of living, which in turn gave Pullman a second opportunity to turn a profit off their employees. The workers at Pullman struck in response to being squeezed by the company.
Company owner George Pullman had bought 4000 acres outside of Chicago and built a town around the factory he built. Pullman had his employees live in his town, rented them homes and selling them goods. He ruled the town like a feudal lord, outlawing outside papers, speeches and no questioning his authority. It could be reasoned the city operated much like a slave plantation with the workers being his slaves.
In 1894 business slowed, so Pullman cut wages. However, he did not cut rent or goods in his stores. The workers struck and the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs supported the workers at Pullman and refused to handle any trains that contained Pullman Cars. The boycott of Pullman Cars began on June 29, 1894, essentially shutting down rail traffic in the country. Pullman brought in replacement workers to try and break the strike, but strengthened the resolve of the workers.
Nelson Miles was brought in to deal with the strike. Miles had been a Colonel in the US Calvary prior to this assignment. He was famous for his violence against Native Americans during the settling of the plains and was in charge when the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 where 300 members of the Sioux nation were killed including women and children. One of Mile’s objectives during the Plains Campaign was the capture of Chiricahua leader Geronimo. First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood actually found Geronimo and negotiated terms for a truce with the great warrior. Miles took Geronimo in custody and refused to give Gatewood credit for negotiations and reassigned him deep in the Dakota Territory. Miles never honored the terms of the truce.
President Grover Cleveland sent Miles to put down the Pullman strike, justifying his actions through a charge that the strike interfered with the delivery of the mail. Miles brought in 12,000 troops and killed 13 and wounded 57 strikers. The action took place in spite of the objections of the Illinois Governor. The corruption of the government was evident in the way the strike was handled. Grover Cleveland rushed the bill through Congress to make Labor Day a federal holiday – AFTER his order to murder workers striking for their rights.
Grover Cleveland was opposed to workers rights through his ordered slaughter during the Pullman strike. He was oppose to Civil Rights and refused to enforce the 15th amendment to the Constitution which gave voting rights to all citizens regardless of race. He thought all immigrants should be assimilated into white culture and tried to discrimination of other cultures.
Grover Cleveland is proof of the impact a president can have on America’s workers. Other presidents have recognized the importance of labor. Dwight D. Eisenhower stated “Only a handful of reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions and depriving working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice. I have no use for those -- regardless of their political party -- who hold some vain and foolish dream of spinning the clock back to days when organized labor was huddled, almost as a hapless mass. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
President Eisenhower wouldn’t have to look too far to find these “fools.” His party is currently running a huge anti-union, anti-worker candidate. Mitt Romney has referred to union members and leaders as “stooges” (L.A. Times, February 2012) and went on to say that “he had taken on union bosses before and would be happy to again.” He has also stated that if he is elected president he will repeal of a federal law requiring the prevailing local wage to be paid on public-works projects. Romney also wants a federal right to work law to further undermine unions. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney waged war against fire fighters, stripping them of the collective bargaining rights. His actions were overturned by the Democratic State Legislature,
Throughout history America has made the mistake of electing officials that waged war against the working class and labor. The duo of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are easily the most anti-worker combination that have been on a national ticket in over a 100 years. This Labor Day could be the last one for America’s workers if the reins of government are handed over to the an administration that wants to eliminate unions, cut unemployment insurance, end Medicare, privatize Social Security, attack education and pay for it all by lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations. This Labor Day remember all the lives that have been given to protect workers and never forget the gains of a nation could be wiped away with the election of an anti-labor, anti-worker ticket that caters to the 1%.