Peter Rachleff: Labor Day roots trace to St. Paul’s East Side

Most of us, from St. Paul workers and labor activists to labor historians like me, have been unaware of the role that St. Paul workers played in the establishment of the Labor Day holiday.

In April 1894, railroad workers from Montana to Chicago struck the Great Northern Railroad. Owner James J. Hill had cut their wages three times since a depression had begun in the fall of 1893, and, across all the running trades, workers had joined the new American Railway Union under the charismatic leadership of Eugene V. Debs. Debs made the case to workers that, facing the country’s biggest corporations, they were ill-served by belonging to 14 different craft unions rather than coming together in one big union of railroad workers. By spring of 1894, this argument made sense to tens of thousands of engineers, firemen, brakemen, switchmen, trainmen, conductors, maintenance of way workers and more.

The very center of the strike was the East Side of St. Paul. Strikers met in the second-floor meeting room of a mutual benefit society located at 896 Payne Ave. Following their spirited meetings, they would march, singing, to the newly built overpass above the tracks three blocks south on Payne, just north of Minnehaha Avenue. There they dumped garbage on the tracks, seeking to interfere with the scab-operated trains that Hill had funded. Great Northern trains on these tracks ran from the flour mills on the Minneapolis riverfront, through St. Paul’s Swede Hollow, on their way to Duluth. There, barrels of flour would be loaded onto ocean-going ships and sent across Lake Superior, out the Saint Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the productivity of midwestern wheat farming, flour milling and transportation, barrels of Minnesota flour undersold European flour in cities across the continent and made the Pillsburys, Washburns and Crosbys oligarchs to rival Hill.

And they were unhappy when “his” workers went on strike and disrupted the shipment of “their” flour. Pillsbury called on Hill and urged him to settle with his workers. Hill agreed to participate in the first ever third-party arbitration of a major strike and to allow Pillsbury to serve as arbitrator. Debs agreed, too.  Lo and behold, Pillsbury ruled in favor of the American Railway Union and ordered Hill to restore the wage cuts!

Word spread among railroad workers that the American Railway Union had defeated Big Jim Hill, and in the next months Debs was deluged with requests for membership.  One of those requests came from the machinists, molders and foundry workers who made Pullman sleeping cars in a company town just outside Chicago. Pullman had not only cut his workers’ wages several times, but he had refused to reduce their rents or the prices charged by his company stores. Workers explained to Debs that, while they did not work on moving trains, they were railroad workers, and he agreed. And when they added that they were already on strikes, Debs called for a nationwide “boycott” of all trains that included Pullman cars. This was tantamount to calling a nationwide railroad strike, since virtually all trains included Pullman cars, and the East Side railroad workers, back on the job only two months, returned to the picket lines.

Pullman hired the former U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney to help him break the strike. Olney argued before a federal judge in Chicago that, because every train included a mail car, the strike was interfering with the shipment of the nation’s mail. The judge agreed and issued the first ever federal injunction against a strike. Debs was hauled into court and told to issue an order ending the strike. When he refused, the judge found him in contempt and ordered him to jail. Debs would spend the next 18 months in prison, refusing to call off the strike.

President Grover Cleveland decided to send the National Guard to break the picket lines in Chicago. There was considerable violence, and the strike began to crumble. But this “success” sullied Cleveland’s political reputation, and the Democrat’s advisors told him he had to do something to win back working class support, which had put him in office. And so, in August 1894, he decreed there would be an annual national holiday called “Labor Day.”

On Saturday, Sept. 10, from 3 to 6 p.m., the East Side Freedom Library will host a Labor Solidarity Picnic on our beautiful front lawn. Come learn other labor history stories that you and your families might not know. And come hear about current labor struggles, from union organizing at Starbucks, Amazon and Half Price Books to the struggles of railroad workers nurses, nurses and other health care workers, and of Building Trades workers today.

Yes, there is history to learn, and there is history to be made. Join us!

– Peter Rachleff is co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul.

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