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de Vos: Bang on me drum all day

Jon DeVos

Jon DeVos

Labor Day is tied pretty closely with passenger train traffic.

When it comes to getting there by train, the U.S. is ranked 22nd, just ahead of Belarus for countries with the fewest number of passenger-train miles per inhabitant. There are 31 countries that log three billion or more passenger-miles annually. Each year, every Japanese adult travels more than 1,200 miles by rail, compared to an American average of fewer than fifty. England lies in the middle, but even so, the average Briton uses the train 200 times more often than the average American. Amtrak’s subsidy in 2014 was $1.4 billion dollars but almost all nations subsidize their rail service. Conversely, the U.S. is only slightly behind China in the sheer volume of goods and materials transported by rail.

So, what does Labor Day have to do with the railroads? Answer: almost everything.

Pretend we’re back in time to 1892. We’re in Pullman, Illinois at a period in American history when the automobile was just a rumor, electricity was only in factories, and horses outnumbered people.

Whoa, look at me, I have a walrus moustache! My name is Eugene Pullman and I build the finest passenger railcars in America. Hooking my thumbs into my waistcoat, I look out proudly over the town that bears my name. Smoke spewing from the factory dims the view of the rows and rows of my houses occupied by workers whose rent the Pullman Bank deducts from their pay. They shop at Pullman stores and eat at Pullman cafeterias, all on credit withheld from wages. Very little actual money changes hands in this new slavery, I chuckle at their plight and light a foot-long Havana with a hundred-dollar bill.

Life’s been good to me, so far. My city has been heralded as a utopian worker’s community. My plan was to control the costs of labor while keeping the devil’s unions up north in Chicago where they belong.

The sweetness turned bitter a year later in 1893, as a nationwide economic depression caused a sharp decline in the demand for rail passenger cars. The Pullman factory laid off hundreds of workers and slashed the wages of the survivors while keeping prices and rents the same. In retaliation, the workers went on strike. That same year, Eugene V. Debs, a tenacious fighter for the rights of industrial workers everywhere, and president of the 150,000-member strong American Railway Union, carried the fight to the front gates of Pullman’s factory. Riots and looting broke out; the factory was damaged by fire and the melee quickly gained national attention and growing support from affiliated unions.

President Grover Cleveland, under pressure from interrupted mail trains and wealthy railroad magnates, declared the strike a federal crime and deployed 12,000 troops quell the rioters. Two men were killed when Federal marshals fired a volley into a crowd of protestors, breaking the backbone of the strike. Debs was jailed and the American Railway Union was disbanded by presidential decree. The strike officially ended on August 3, 1894. Returning Pullman employees signed a contract that they would never again unionize.

The president’s brutal tactics became soundly criticized around the nation, raising the ire of the nation’s workers. In an election-year attempt at appeasing them, Cleveland rushed legislation through both houses of Congress to establish the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a national holiday honoring the workingman. He affixed his signature to the bill just six days after his troops broke the Pullman strike.

And just three months before his party’s defeat in the 1894 mid-terms election, leading to his own defeat in the 1896 presidential race.