By the time President Grover Cleveland signed the act declaring the first Monday in September an official federal Labor Day holiday, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company had been on strike over six weeks.
The workers at the railroad car manufacturer had seen their wages cut by almost 25 percent following the panic of 1893, but did not get a commensurate rent reduction from their landlord, who just also happened to be the Pullman company. With families starving and the company president refusing to hear their grievances, workers voted to leave their 16-hour-a-day jobs on May 11, 1894.
The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, was not officially an organizer of the walkout, but with some Pullman workers as members, the ARU worked to support the strike. On June 22, ARU delegates voted to initiate a widespread railway boycott if Pullman did not submit to arbitration by June 26.
It was on June 22 that a bill started moving through Congress to declare an official federal holiday in honor of working Americans. With speed that would make any 21st Century Congress-watcher dizzy, final legislation was on Cleveland’s desk inside a week. It was hoped that recognition of the labor holiday might blunt the budding railroad strike.
It did not.
Pullman refused arbitration, and on June 27, 5,000 railway workers left their jobs. By the next day, the number grew to 40,000. On June 28, the number swelled to 100,000 strikers, and by June 30, an estimated 125,000 had walked off their jobs rather than work with any Pullman-manufactured products. At its peak, the job action included some quarter-million workers in 27 states.
Anger at Pullman and the railroad companies grew along with the numbers. On June 29, after a speech by Debs in Blue Island, Illinois, just outside Chicago, fires were set and a train was derailed by a small group of strikers.
The train included a U.S. mail car, and that gave the Cleveland administration, already closely tied to the railroad barons, and Attorney General Richard Olney, himself a former railroad lawyer, all the reason they needed to call in federal troops to suppress the strike.
It took another three weeks — and the lives of 30 workers — but the Pullman strike was finally quashed.
In the aftermath, Debs went to jail, where he finally had time to read the works of Karl Marx. (Debs emerged from jail a confirmed socialist, and would run for president five times in the 20th Century, garnering over 5 percent of the popular vote in 1912, and nearly a million votes from the expanded electorate — thanks to the 19th Amendment — in 1920.)
And, America got Labor Day.
By the time it became a federal holiday, Labor Day was already recognized in 30 states. Cleveland and Congress opted for the September date, which had been observed in New York since 1882, over May 1, or May Day, which had become a popular International Workers’ Day in many industrialized countries, because Washington feared the May date was too close to the anniversary of the Haymarket Massacre, a Chicago labor demonstration that turned deadly on May 4, 1886.
Flash forward 120 years from that first federally recognized Labor Day.
Working Americans’ participation in labor unions, bought in part with the blood of Pullman workers, has dwindled to just over 11 percent, down from 20 percent just 30 years earlier. Labor Day has become known as “the unofficial end of summer,” rather than a recognition of the “social and economic achievements of the American worker.”
But that doesn’t mean this weekend isn’t a good time to reflect on a very recent achievement.
The story stretches generations — quite literally — but the near-term history had Arthur S. resting control of the Market Basket board and ousting Arthur T. as president several months ago.
Market Basket is privately held and one of America’s oldest family-owned businesses, but word on the street was that Artie S. was looking to sell the company to a private equity goliath in some sort of fancy finance deal.
And those sorts of deals are rarely favorable to rank-and-file employees.
Artie T. is much beloved by Market Basket workers, whom, it is reported, he treated more like partners than employees. Though not unionized, Market Basket workers are paid better than the industry standard and, in addition, receive annual bonuses equal to six to eight-weeks' pay. Market Basket has a generous profit-sharing program and invests the equivalent of 15 percent of every paycheck into employees’ retirement plans.
Still, the chain has grocery prices generally lower than its competition, including Walmart, and maintains high profitability. Market Basket is currently the 127th largest private company in America.
Market Basket workers were outraged by the ouster of their beloved Artie, and demanded the arch Artie sell the company to his cousin. For weeks, Arthur S. refused.
The response from the workers was a job action that not only crossed traditional, craft-defined labor lines to include all kinds of Market Basket workers, from cashiers to butchers to managers, it organized the New England communities around the stores, as well.
No, Market Basket employees never had to stare down armed federal troops, but the pressure was noticeable, from the forces aligned with Artie S. threatening to fire striking employees and sell off the company, to Democratic Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick telling workers, essentially, “You’ve had your fun, now get back to work.”
And while Market Basket employees may not have had the benefit of collective bargaining, they did have the benefit of hindsight, or, really, the foresight that comes from the collective experience of American workers in the go-go age of high finance. How persuasive were the threats to jettison workers and carve up the company when the employees knew that would likely be the future, anyway, should Arthur S. win the fight?
The workers also had the force multiplier of community support. It turns out that in a world where more and more retail trade flows through impersonal big-box stores and even more detached websites, the local grocer is still a place that inspires passion — providing the convenience and connection to a community missing from centralized and automated distribution.
As a result, Market Basket stores had a crisis this summer that sounded like a vaudeville joke — there was nothing to buy, and no one to buy it. With produce rotting, shelves empty, and the company losing millions, Arthur S. finally relented this week, taking $1 billion from Arthur T. (and a group of investors) to check out.
There are probably still some storm clouds ahead. Market Basket now has shelves to restock, supply lines to reestablish, and a new crop of investors to reimburse. And it should also be no surprise that not everyone in Arthur T.’s camp shares Mr. T.’s benevolent sensibilities.
But there is no taking away from this victory. Expect Market Basket employees to work with remarkable vigor to replenish the stores, and expect the supermarkets to see a surge of business, honoring the chain’s commitment to good value and great workers.
So, on this 120th official national Labor Day, despite the decline in union membership, despite the paucity of labor voices on the national Sunday shows, and despite a Supreme Court that continually signals its corporate inclinations, there is something to celebrate. From the workers at Pullman Palace Car who had to lose their lives and their livelihood, to the employees at Market Basket who didn’t — and to the washeros in the Bronx who just voted to make their car wash the ninth in New York to unionize in the last two years, and to fast food workers across the nation who continue raise awareness and build solidarity around an industry as famous for its resistance to unions as it is for its rock-bottom wages — there is a place for labor participation and a path forward.
True, across America, there will be more talk of sales and barbecues this Labor Day than there will be talk of collective struggle or worker rights, but remember, this is not called “Grover Cleveland Day” or “Pullman Appreciation Day,” it is called “Labor Day.” And remember it is called Labor Day because lawmakers once upon a time actually feared the collective strength of the American worker — and Market Basket is back in the hands of Arthur T. because contemporary capitalists actually witnessed it.