by Patrick Devlin

A salute to working women and men in America on Labor Day!

Even after 50 years of stagnant wages, union-busting, job outsourcing, and the appalling lapdoggery of politicians in both legacy parties who serve the interests of the modern oligarchs – we are obliged to stand with our fellow workers and acknowledge that our work makes our land. And, remember also that it is not to enrich the selfish wealthy that we work…at least that is what Eugene Debs believed.

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
Eugene Debs-1918

Eugene Debs was one of the reasons that our country’s celebration of labor, unlike the rest of the world’s May Day celebration of International Workers’ Day, is at the end of August. So is Chicago and so is the effort to undermine workers’ solidarity by politicians in thrall of oligarchy that has continued unabated since the Labor Day holiday was first established as a federal holiday in the United States in 1894.

In 1894 the workers at the Pullman train car factory in Chicago had their wages reduced during what was to that point America’s most severe depression, which began in 1893. The Pullman workers’ rents and the cost of food that George Pullman charged his workers who lived in Pullman’s very own Foxconn style labor camp were, however, not lowered and the plant’s 4000 non-unionized workers organized a wildcat strike and walked off the job.

Debs had formed a union in 1893 called the American Railroad Union that organized unskilled rail workers across the country. Debs and ARU organizers came to Pullman and many of the company’s workers became members of the union. The aim of the organized workers was to bring Pullman to the negotiation table to work out a compromise, but Pullman (in a distinctly Koch-ian fashion) refused to recognize the union or negotiate with his workers.

Debs called for a massive boycott of Pullman where over 250,000 ARU workers in solidarity with the Pullman workers refused to work on any trains that included Pullman train cars. Workers from the Railroad brotherhoods, the American Federation of Labor and Pullman Porters themselves did not support the boycott. Even so, the ARU and its new members, the Pullman workers, accomplished the halting of railroad traffic in 27 states, from Detroit to the Pacific Ocean.

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Eugene Debs-1918

The associated owners of 24 rail lines that converged in Chicago attempted to break the strike by bringing in scabs to take the jobs of the Pullman strikers. In June of 1894, Debs held a peaceful rally in Blue Island, IL to attempt to convince railroad workers who did not support the Pullman workers to join the boycott, after which some rallyers rioted, burning buildings. Similar destructive acts were carried out across the country by railroad workers who supported the Pullman workers.

Grover Cleveland instructed his Attorney General, Richard Olney, coincidentally a former railroad attorney, to break the strike. The federal government went to court arguing that Debs’ boycott prevented the government from performing its obligation to deliver the mails and that the boycotters violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by participating in a conspiracy. The feds, using the US Army and 12,000 US Marshalls, fanned out from Chicago to Montana and California and eventually the national strike was ended. In the end, 30 workers were killed, 57 were injured, and all who supported the strike were fired and blacklisted from the industry.

Eugene Debs, represented by Clarence Darrow, was convicted of violating a federal injunction and served six months in prison. During the time that Debs was in prison he read Marx and became a socialist and for America and workers everywhere, to the world was born one of our great political leaders. Debs ran for president as the head of the Socialist Party five times beginning in 1900.

“The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society — we are on the eve of universal change.”
Eugene Debs-1897

In the effort to splinter America’s labor movement, not all of whom supported the Pullman strikers, Cleveland and congress passed a law creating Labor Day within six days after the Pullman Strike ended. Their choice of the date of the holiday, though, displayed the feds’ scheming.

Also in Chicago, and just eight years earlier on May 4, 1886, a workers rally for the eight-hour day at Chicago’s Haymarket turned bloody when an unknown bomber killed seven police and at least four workers. Seven of the organizers of the rally – none of whom attended the rally – were sentenced to death and one was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The show trial where innocents were sentenced to death stirred the world and inspired the worldwide May Day. The nascent labor movement took on the cause of demanding an eight hour work day. The Paris congress of the Second International in 1890 called for an international demonstration to be held on May first in honor of the Haymarket martyrs. The event was a worldwide phenomenon, the front page of the New York World was dedicated to the “Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in all the Trade Centers of the Civilized World,” and the yearly international workers’ celebration was created.

“I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world.”
Eugene Debs-1915

Aware of the dangers of placing American Labor Day on the anniversary of the internationally known miscarriage of justice and attack on labor that followed from Chicago’s Haymarket riot, our brave leaders decided to put our Labor Day at the end of the summer. And for this reason, we don’t join the world remembering the martyrs, or remembering last century’s coordinated federal crack downs on workers at Pullman and elsewhere, or the workers who stood up together to demand the rights we now take for granted. Instead we hear insipid speeches from fake labor supporting politicians before getting back to school and work.

We can, however, agree with Eugene Debs who knew; “Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.”
Eugene Debs-1908

– labor photo links courtesy of d.hopkins of the acmeartscollective