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USA The First Labor Day: The Bloody Strike Behind the Holiday

It’s little more than a day off for shopping now, but when Labor Day was first observed, it wasn’t all fun and back-to-school sales. Its passage as a federal holiday, in 1894, was a sort of peace offering from President Grover Cleveland for the killing of a dozen or more striking railway workers.

The strike began as unrest in the Illinois town founded by George Pullman, creator of the railroad sleeping car.

The town, just outside Chicago, had been built as a utopian home for Pullman’s workers, but the utopia was designed to serve Pullman above all others, according to PBS. “Its residents all worked for the Pullman company,” PBS notes, “their paychecks drawn from Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks.”

From 1880 to 1893, all seemed well in Pullman (the town), until an economic depression prompted Pullman (the man) to cut employees’ wages — even though their rents remained the same. The workers walked out. In solidarity, members of the American Railway Union (founded, per TIME, by “fiery Socialist Eugene Debs”) took up the cause, and its 150,000 members refused to work on trains carrying Pullman cars, prompting a nationwide transportation nightmare.

It was, according to The Atlantic, America’s first true nationwide strike — and a major milestone for the labor movement. But it didn’t end well, for anyone. President Cleveland, under pressure from the railroad industry and the U.S. Postal Service, whose mail trains had ground to a halt, declared the strike a federal crime and sent troops to break it. David Ray Papke, the author of The Pullman Case, describes the rioting and arson that ensued, and was suppressed; while death counts vary by source, TIME called it “one of the bloodiest strikes in U.S. history.”

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