The Pullman Strike resulted in violence, arrests and – some argue – Labor Day.
The bill designating the first Monday of September as Labor Day landed on President Grover Cleveland’s desk six days after federal troops broke the Pullman strike.
The strike started when Pullman Palace Car Co. workers walked out on May 11, 1894, after negotiations over declining wages and stagnant rents for company-owned row houses fell apart.
The American Railway Union joined in, refusing to work trains that carried Pullman cars. The move effectively paralyzed railroad traffic nationwide.
With mail disrupted and reports of violence coming in, Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and ordered federal troops to intervene.
While riots erupted and two men were killed when U.S. deputy marshals fired on protesters, federal troops were able to stamp out the strike. Its leaders were arrested, and Pullman employees signed a pledge promising not to unionize.
In the wake of such a deeply divisive event, the Labor Day bill was passed unanimously by both chambers of Congress and signed into law, codifying a holiday that had been gaining traction since September 1892 when union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and rallied around Union Square.
Today, Labor Day is less about worker rights and more about the end of summer.
In 2012, the union membership rate in the U.S. was 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, the first year with comparable data, the union membership was at 20.1 percent.
History buffs can learn a bit about one of Labor Day’s Illinois connections: The final day of the Illinois Railway Museum’s four-day celebration is Monday.
Besides two visiting steam engines, visitors can see Pullman luxury cars and the last cars ever made by the Pullman Co. The museum, located in Union, also houses the Pullman Library, which is not open to the public.
“We’ll celebrate all the workers that built the railroad,” said the museum’s marketing director, Ed Rosengren. “It’s our 60th anniversary. We’ve always done a Labor Day extravaganza. It’s the last big fling of summer.”