If there is anything ironic about a national Labor Day, 100 years old this year, it is that unions and railroads, the protagonists whose battles gave rise to a holiday to placate workers, play much smaller parts on the contemporary economic stage.
To be sure, last week President Clinton ordered a suspension of the 6-week-old strike against the Soo Line Railroad, and Congress two years ago had to halt a nationwide rail strike. But labor unions rarely resort to strikes these days, and railroad whistles are the faintest of the transportation sounds. Moreover, railroads no longer carry the mail, which was the reason the federal government often decided to intervene in strikes.
In 1877, the nation witnessed its first major rail strike. Stirred by wage cuts and starting with workers on the Baltimore & Ohio, the strike spread to the Pennsylvania Railroad and other lines, ultimately resulting in 10 states putting about 60,000 militia in arms.
The strike on the Pennsy centered in the Pittsburgh area, where rail workers were supported by numerous sympathizers -- to such an extent that National Guard troops from Philadelphia were called to the scene, on the grounds that Pittsburgh's militia might be sympathetic.
In spite of the urgings from strike leaders to avoid a confrontation, no sooner had the Philadelphia troops arrived than the assembled crowd of greeters unleashed a torrent of invective.
Troops were ordered to fix bayonets, and within minutes panic ensued.
"Seventeen Citizens," read a headline in an "extra" edition of a Pittsburgh newspaper, "Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia. The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand. The Slaughter of Innocents."
What followed was even worse than the initial bloodshed. Rioting became widespread, railroad property and other buildings were burned, and looters were silhouetted against the flames.
"People were hurrying up the hill," an onlooker noted, "with all kinds of shipping cases, webs of cloth, silk, brooms, hams, bacon, umbrellas, liquor of every kind, in fact every kind of potable merchandise."
Total losses from the fire and looting were estimated at $5 million, including the destruction of 104 engines, 46 passenger cars and more than 1,200 freight cars. Additional gunfire from the Philadelphia troops raised the number of deaths to about 40.
Although the rail strike in Baltimore resulted in fewer deaths, the assembling of militiamen and sympathizers ignited a riot that was dubbed the "second Battle of Bunker Hill."
Afterward, Americans seemed to focus on foreign forces as the main culprits for the disorder and violence.
"It was evident," read the "Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States," published later the same year, "that there were agencies at work outside of the workingmen's strike. The people engaged in these riots were not railroad strikers. The Internationalists had evidently something to do with creating scenes of bloodshed. The threats of their leaders made at meetings held the same evening were evidently not merely idle vaporizings. Women frenzied with rage joined the mob and incited the men to stand firm in the fight.
"The scenes . . . in the city of Baltimore were not unlike those which characterized the events in the city of Paris during the reign of the Commune in 1870."
There were more rail strikes from 1884 to 1886 and 1888 to 1889. By 1894, the railroad strike and boycott that began in Pullman, Ill., and spread throughout the nation created a division among labor leaders, with American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers only lukewarm to the strategy.
So Congress was presented with the opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Legislation establishing a national Labor Day was rushed through both houses -- with unanimous votes -- and signed by President Grover Cleveland while the Pullman strike still raged, with the immediate beneficiaries the large number of working people who preferred an obvious benefit (a day off) rather than the smaller group of workers who hoped for curbing of government interference in rail strikes.
No doubt, Labor Day 1994 is a far cry from the labor-railroad strife of the late 19th century -- despite the emotions over the current strike of major-league baseball players. Union workers today lose more time to coffee breaks than they do to manning the picket lines each year. And even contemporary terminology -- work stoppage -- is a far cry from the tumult and language of a
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University, Washington.