What's Pullman, Washington's Connection To Labor Day?

Sep 2, 2017

Labor Day is a time of reflection: where should I camp? Do I actually have to stop wearing white? Where exactly is the best deal on a flat-screen? More than a century ago, though, the United State Congress quickly pushed through legislation declaring Labor Day a national holiday, and it wasn't to give you a three day weekend. It was an attempt to save face with unionists after the largest and bloodiest strike the nation had ever seen.

Protesters nationwide had a clear villain in mind: Pullman. Not the Palousian college town, but the railroad car magnate the town was named after - George Pullman.

For anyone who could afford to commute by rail in the late 19th century there was nothing more synonymous with the luxury than the camber-roofed Pullman sleeper car. George Pullman was consequently revered alongside men-of-industry like Henry Ford. He donated $50 dollars to Pullman, Washington’s (then Three Forks’) 1881 New Year’s Celebration, and the first record of a citizen referring to the town as Pullman came not even a year later. There are conflicting stories about whether the honor was due to the donation but one possibly apocryphal tale claims the townsfolk hoped the rails coming to Seattle would pass through the Palouse. If Pullman was swayed to use his influence, it didn’t matter; the Inland Empire Railroad went to Spokane two years later.

In the pursuit of omnipresence, Pullman went all out. After losing a patent suit, Pullman bought the patent rights of his rivals elbowing out competition. All of Pullman’s porters were African-Americans, often recently freed and intentionally used to entice a middle class with a black servility they could otherwise not afford.

Pullman’s cars were whites-only and would be the starting stage for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, when the mixed-raced Homer Plessy illegally boarded one of the sleek green sleepers. But what gave rise to Pullman’s most infamous historical association was another fiscally efficient scheme: Pullman, Illinois. Today an incorporated neighborhood in Chicago, in the 1880's the employee housing project was Pullman’s brainchild. 

George Pullman owned every inch of the town. According to a Pullman laborer in 1883, “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” Rents were sent to George automatically from paychecks stored in the Pullman Bank. The town church charged the clergy to use its spaces. As a socialist newspaper at the time put it, “He wasn’t a man to let you pray for free.”

Then came the Depression of 1893. Fewer people could afford to travel by luxury sleeper car, and the economic downturn cut into Pullman's profit. Layoffs followed and those who did remain had their wages slashed, affecting a nationwide network of laborers. Rents in Pullman, Illinois weren't lowered to compensate.

Though there had been strikes earlier in the year, the Pullman Strike started in earnest the summer of 1894. Siding with the Pullman workers, 150,000 members of the American Railway Union led by Eugene Debs refused to let any trains with Pullman cars move. Railroads across the nation ground to a halt.

Though the ARU urged members to allow trains with mail to continue, President Cleveland was pressured by the U.S. Postal Service, George Pullman and an irate railroad industry to declare the strike a federal crime. The President eventually conceded. When employees didn’t return to work the next day he ordered federal troops to break up the strike. Infuriated by the actions of the President, the presence of federal troops and the mistreatment by their company, workers rioted and burned stations. Federal troops lost control of the situation and opened fire. The number of strikers who died varies by source, but TIME called it “one of the bloodiest strikes in U.S. history.” Debs and other organizers were arrested for tampering with the mail but were released days later. 

More protests broke out across the country in response to President Cleveland deploying federal troops, and the President’s popularity tanked among the working class. Congress unanimously passed legislation that Cleveland would sign just six days after the end of the deadly strike, declaring Labor Day as a federal holiday. 

Four years later, the head of the American Federation of Labor (now the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the nation) saw Labor Day as an opportunity, "that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it."

The only place I expect to touch shoulders with my fellow worker Monday is wherever I can find that sweet deal on a flat-screen.