POLITICS
09/01/2014 07:30 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2014

The Bloody Origin Of Labor Day

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.

"Workers were mad about their situation," Papke wrote. "They were angry about their limited opportunities and about what they took to be the mean and arbitrary treatment they received from the distant owners of the industries in which they worked."

Pullman workers started their strike in May 1894. The following month, Congress passed legislation making the first Monday of September a day to recognize workers. (Such a holiday had already been a demand of the labor movement, though commentators have described the Labor Day legislation as an attempt to "appease" angry workers.) In July, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to crush the strike.

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.

The U.S. Department of Labor's page on the history of Labor Day notes the holiday "is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers." It doesn't mention the Pullman strike or labor strife in general. Throughout American history, workers had to fight to get better pay and shorter hours -- evenings and weekends weren't just handed over by lawmakers and benevolent managers.

"I think most people consider Labor Day an end-of-summer three-day weekend," Papke, a law professor at Marquette University, said in an interview. "Very few Americans stop to reflect on the working man, on labor, on the union movement or any of those things."

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