A thirteen year old Italian girl crosses the Atlantic with her mother and older sister, Annamaria. They are on a ship, the “SS Rex” – the last one out of Italy before Mussolini closed the port. They are escaping the Nazis and headed to a place called “America” for a new life. She doesn’t speak the language. Her father and brothers are already there, as is her future husband – a 18 year old Italian boy, Osvoldo, who had arrived on the same ship in 1937. These are my grandparents, the year was 1940.
Osvoldo (American name: Oswald) and Bice (American name: Beatrice) came to this country as immigrants. They faced discrimination (my great-aunt’s immigration papers read “brown” under the category of skin color), they learned English, they worked really hard, they were successful. My grandfather served in the US Army before he became an American citizen, and was honorably discharged in 1943. He then worked in construction, and ultimately started his own company, which my father took over when Oswald died of a heart attack in his 50s.
On this Labor Day, I am reminded of the many, many immigrants who were the foundation of the labor movement. According to a 2009 study, “Immigrants and their children comprised over half of manufacturing workers in 1920, and if the third generation (the grandchildren of immigrants) are included, then more than two-thirds of workers in the manufacturing sector were of recent immigrant stock”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2760060/
Indeed, one historical account of the birth of the Labor Day holiday emerges from the 1894 Pullman strike – over 45 years before my grandparents came to America.
This strike was conducted by the workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company, many of whom were immigrants and freed slaves. George Pullman owned not just the railcar company – he owned the entire town of Pullman, Illinois (located on the southside of Chicago). The workers decided to go on strike, in part, because he lowered their wages but not the cost of their housing (that Pullman also owned.) In 1894, President Cleveland sent troops to the town of Pullman to ensure the trains would start moving again, thereby undermining the boycott (strike) of the workers. As a result of this violence, many workers were killed or wounded.
From Enclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Pullman-Strike
The strikers reacted with fury to the appearance of the troops. On July 4 they and their sympathizers overturned railcars and erected barricades to prevent troops from reaching the yards. ARU leaders could do nothing, prevented by the injunction from any communication with the workers. On July 6 some 6,000 rioters destroyed hundreds of railcars in the South Chicago Panhandle yards.
By that time, there were some 6,000 federal and state troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshals in the city, but they could not contain the violence. On July 7 national guardsmen, after having been assaulted, fired into a mob, killing between 4 and 30 people and wounding many others. Debs then tried to call off the strike, urging that all workers except those convicted of crimes be rehired without prejudice. But the General Managers’ Association, the federation of railroads that had overseen the response to the strike, refused and instead began hiring nonunion workers. The strike dwindled, and trains began to move with increasing frequency until normal schedules had been restored. Federal troops were recalled on July 20. The Pullman Company, which reopened on August 2, agreed to rehire the striking workers on the condition that they sign a pledge never to join a union. By the time it ended, the ordeal had cost the railroads millions of dollars in lost revenue and in looted and damaged property, and the strikers had lost more than $1 million in wages.
Let’s revisit that last part: The company “agreed to rehire the striking workers on the condition that they sign a pledge never to join a union.” The workers were essentially given no choice.
As for President Cleveland:
Historians, encyclopedias and news articles pinpoint Cleveland’s actions during the Pullman Strike as his reason for rushing the Labor Day Act through Congress that June. People were dead on the streets of Chicago, and the creation of a holiday would help make up for it. These reports also claim the law was passed to court votes ahead of the 1896 election, to no avail.
It is worth noting that there are several historical accounts of how the holiday of Labor Day came to be; President Cleveland’s actions regarding the Pullman Strike is just one of these. Indeed, Newsweek and other sources indicate that the the first Labor Day occurred in New York City on September 5, 1882. A parade was organized by trade unions, and was “overseen by the Central Labor Union (CLU), a left-wing union that later broke up into local organizations that are members of the modern American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)”. And Oregon was actually the first state to create an official Labor Day holiday in 1887.
The recognition of a day to celebrate their labor arose in the shadow of discrimination and unscrupulous practices (such as child labor and those experienced by the Pullman workers). As a union member, I am both grateful and humbled by the efforts of labor, both historically and presently. But let us return to the immigrant workers, your ancestors and mine, for it is on their backs that this country was built. Our efforts today are possible because of their efforts in yesteryears.
Lastly, keeping the history of this holiday in mind, I find it ironically troubling that on Labor Day 2017, we celebrate work in the shadow of the “Dreamers” Act being threatened. Immigrants whose parents wanted a better life for them, who came here as children, who are our classmates and coworkers. These could have been my grandparents. Or yours. Labor has shown time and time again what we are capable of.
Let’s go to work.