Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day: Or, "The-President-Will-Use-The-Army-to-Force-You-to-Profit-the-Rich-Day"

George M. Pullman (1831-1897) was an opportunistic "industrialist" who made a fortune, in part, creating luxury railroad "palace cars" catering to the rich and staffed with "ex slaves."

He then purchased a tract of land outside of Chicago for an experimental "model planned community" which he billed as a utopia but which was, in fact, a glorified concentration work camp. The concentration work camp was centered around Pullman's railcar manufacturing plant. At "below subsistence" levels, Pullman "paid" his "employees" in a sort of Monopoly-money termed "Pullman scrip." However, Pullman also took this scrip back in virtue of the fact that he gave "preference" to hiring workers who lived in his community, which meant that those who worked for Pullman were also paying rent to him. He also constrained the workers to buy from his stores.
"Declared one Pullman employee: '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.' The Rev. William H. Carwardine, the Methodist minister in Pullman, characterized the town as a 'civilized relic of European serfdom.'" Pullman's press releases declared: "“. . . all that is ugly, and discordant, and demoralizing, is eliminated. . . ." (including a free press).
 The "serfdom" comments implies, as the Wikipedia article on Pullman explicitly states, that "Pullman ruled the town like a feudal baron."
As a result of the so-called "Panic of 1893" (which began around February of 1893 and which was, to use contemporary jargon, an "economic recession" or possibly a "depression"), Pullman cut his serf's "wages" in order to preserve his profits in the face of the faltering economy. However, Pullman did not likewise lower the prices in his controlled community. Thus, despite paying his "employees" less scrip, he continued to charge pre-panic rates for "rents, utility charges and products".
By May of 1894 his employees "no longer earned a wage sufficient to support a family." However, Pullman was unmoved by the workers' requests for relief.

On May 11, 1894 his employees, having finally had enough, began a wildcat strike - meaning that there was no "strike order" proclaimed by any organizer. Indeed, the Pullman workers themselves had no union. Rather, the people simply rose up.
In sympathy, the next month members of Eugene V. Debs' American Railway Union (ARU) refused to operate or load trains that had Pullman cars. At the same time, the railroad tycoons began to replace the striking workers with "scabs."
On the pretext that the railroad strikes disrupted postal delivery (as well as the predictable and flimsy excuse of concern for "public safety" which apparently doesn't extend to concern about receipt of a living wage), President S. Grover Cleveland (a Democrat) ordered some 12,000 U.S. Army troops to break the strikes and force the railroad workers back to work.

To keep up the comparison with feudalism, Grover Cleveland functioned something like the king, coming to the aid of his "noble" man or "baron" (Pullman) by deploying the "knights" (army) against the peasant uprising (Pullman's workers).

13 workers ended up dead. At least another 58 were seriously injured. (Note that these figures are one person shy of the casualty count at the Dark Knight Rises massacre.) All those who had participated in the strike (all those who survived the Army's "intervention," that is) were "fired and black listed".

Then, as now, the picture presented to the public was one of greedy, unamerican striking workers - foreign aliens and "anarchists" with no respect for the American rule of law - standing in the way of the entrepreneurial spirit which expresses itself in that quintessentially noble American pursuit: Profit.

However, as a sort of Public Relations (that is, propaganda) stratagem, and conciliatory gesture to the "labor force," the so-called "Labor Day" was made a national holiday in 1894. But, at least for Cleveland, it was not enough to be reelected.

Today, the U.S. Department of Labor's online summary of the "history of Labor Day" makes no mention of Pullman, the Army intervention, or the dead workers. And, seemingly, to most Americans, Labor Day is only superficially recognized to be "for workers" and is simply marketed as a day for banal and nonthreatening activities such as picnics, sports, and of course "holiday sales" at the contemporary retail outlets that, perhaps being more shrewd than Pullman, hawk their wares at an advertised (and alleged) discount every once in a while, in order to encourage the rubes to think that they're "pulling one over" on the corporate fat cats, "getting a good deal," or somehow "saving money" by spending it.

Partial Bibliography:

Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in America
 By James Stuart Olson

From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan ...
 By Joseph C. Bigott

History of Labour in the United States: Nationalisation (1860-1877) by J. B ...
 By John Rogers Commons, David Joseph Saposs, Helen Laura Sumner, Edward Becker Mittelman, Henry Elmer Hoagland, John Bertram Andrews, Selig Perlman, Don Divance Lescohier, Elizabeth Brandeis, Philip Taft

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