WASHINGTON — Most people know Labor Day as an extra day off of work. Fewer know the holiday comes from a time when the government was offing workers.
It all started with a bad recession in the early 1890s that reduced demand for railway cars, prompting Chicago railway magnate George Pullman to lay off workers and reduce wages. Many of his workers went on strike. The sympathetic American Railway Union refused to handle Pullman cars, hampering commerce in many parts of the country.
“The boycott tapped the deep and pervasive alienation of labor in general,” historian David Ray Papke wrote in his 1999 book The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America.
Illinois Gov. John Altgeld (D) resented the president’s decision, as there had not yet been any large-scale rioting. “I protest against this uncalled for reflection upon our people, and again ask the immediate withdrawal of these troops,” Altgeld wrote to the president.
Within a day of the troops’ arrival, mobs started tipping railroad cars and setting them on fire. Troops cracked down with bayonets and bullets; the rioting and property destruction worsened. Dozens of people ultimately died in Chicago and elsewhere. The government restored order by the fall, and American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs was eventually convicted of defying a court order and sent to prison.