The Seeds of U.S. Socialism Were Planted in the First Labor Day
by Dennis Jamison 9/3/19
On the threshold of the 2020 elections in the United States, the “Democratic” Party is fielding several candidates who have embraced Socialism as the direction America should take in the future. Certainly, President Obama touted socialist policies. Yet, despite being criticized that his administration was pursuing a socialist agenda, Obama pushed back and said, “People call me a socialist sometimes. But, no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is,” Obama stated. “I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health-care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.”
Former President Obama’s remarks came in 2013 when he chided business leaders in a meeting of top CEOs hosted by the Wall Street Journal. Obama had attempted to promote the illusion that his White House was pro-business, and focused primarily on creating jobs. However, a different standard of economic health within the nation has disproved a number of Obama’s narratives. It is likely that Obama had someone in mind as he said those interesting words – a mentor perhaps, or a puppet master capable of pulling Obama’s strings. But regardless of who was pulling any strings, a real Socialist, if looking down from “Socialist heaven” would be quite proud of how far and how quickly the “Democratic” Party has “progressed” from Obama to Bernie Sanders to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In the midterm elections of 2018, American citizens witnessed the rise of the socialists in the “Democratic” Party in victories in California, New York, and in Florida. In California, Kevin de Leon put up a serious challenge to Democrat Dianne Feinstein, to take away her senate seat. Also, in New York and Florida, Bernie Sanders-styled socialists made serious inroads to maneuver the Party further to the Left – even to the edge of sanity. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a clear example of a seismic shift in the “Democratic” Party. The Democratic Socialists of America are on the rise.
Certainly, the great granddaddy of American Socialists, Eugene V. Debs, should be included in the understanding of how America got to this point. Although Americans might not recall the saga of one of America’s real homegrown socialists, Eugene Victor Debs ran for president – on multiple occasions. His story is rooted within the history of America — entwined with the history behind the Labor Day holiday. Eugene V. Debs would definitely be proud indeed today because his dream is now coming the closest to fulfillment that it ever has in any other time in American history. That Debs rose to prominence, or notoriety, from the same ashes of history that produced Labor Day reveals much about the rise of real Socialism in the United States.
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that Labor Day was not just created as a nice idea by labor union officials to honor the efforts of those who labored for their hard-earned money. Labor Day was born from the heat and intense political friction of the summer of 1894. The officially sanctioned federal holiday American citizens celebrate as Labor Day was created in the aftermath of some of the most turbulent labor unrest in the history of the United States. And, Eugene Debs was at the center of it.
The first officially recognized Labor Day parade took place in New York City on September 5, 1882. It is recognized by historians as the beginning of Labor Day in the United States. However, it was not the beginning of the national holiday that Americans celebrate today. That national holiday was created by the “Democratic” Party in 1894, which re-initiated legislation that had been languishing in Congress for a good period of time. It was done to appease big labor, and in order to secure the mutual dependency between the Democrats and Big Labor. The symbiotic relations secured votes for the Democrats and the political clout for which big labor hungered.
The sanitized presentation of the history of Labor Day often trivializes or ignores the depth of violence and destruction that big labor was capable of in 1894. A parade event in New York is the mild and mellow version of the narrative of the effectiveness of working together to bring awareness to a persistent problem when the public seems to be unconcerned. The parade took place on September 5, 1882, when around 10,000 workers marched together in the streets of New York City in America’s first Labor Day parade, and it was a fairly pleasant event as the marchers enjoyed a family picnic afterward. Yet, from this innocent scenario labor unions sought even more power, which ultimately included unrestrained violence.
In the hot summer months of 1894, in the midst of the worst economic Depression prior to the Great Depression, an American Railway Union strike spread from Chicago to St. Louis and quickly swept through the entire country like a California wildfire in dry summer heat. At its peak, the ARU strike, led by union leader Eugene Debs, exploded to include 250,000 workers across 27 states and managed to cripple the nation’s rail transportation. The massive and destructive strike was crushed by President Grover Cleveland who sent Federal troops into the Chicago area to put down the violence. But sadly, before the strike officially ended approximately 30 people, including 13 strikers, had been killed, and in all, 57 people had been injured or wounded. Mobs caused about $340,000 (equivalent to roughly $80 million today) of property damage.
Ironically, on the 4th of July in 1894, President Cleveland deployed 12,000 U.S. Army troops to end the violent clashes between the strikers and local authorities and to restore order. On July 6th, a violent mob stoned a train, killing the engineer and injuring many passengers. The violence spread to many cities and the public became worried about the chaos. At this time, the AFL and Samuel Gompers, as well as the various Railroad brotherhoods, opposed the ARU strike and denounced the sabotage and rioting. Fortunately, it was not too long before the Army managed to take control of the unruly mobs. Debs and three additional union leaders were arrested on July 10th for interfering with the delivery of the U. S. mail. Eventually, the Army could withdraw by July 19th.
Within six days of the strike’s end, and the situation being brought under control, Democrat Cleveland signed a bill that recognized Labor Day as an official U.S. holiday. The bill had been rushed through Congress and had received bipartisan support and was unanimously approved. While some historians have made the claim that Cleveland attempted to use the Labor Day legislation to help his efforts to win re-election by mollifying big labor, they neglect to mention that the presidential election would not have occurred until 1896. Yet, it was an election year for many Democrat members of Congress. Cleveland stood firm on what he thought was right: first, the protection of the American people from the violence of the unions, and second, the stability and trust in the legal flow of mail within the United States.
This is essentially a turning point in U.S. history although many would not acknowledge nor teach this. President Grover Cleveland had committed a political “cardinal sin.” Cleveland, like Truman later, would take a strong stand against organized labor. And the Democrats were scared to death they would pay the price for Cleveland’s sin. The Democrats in the 53rd Congress rushed a bill to the floor that had been languishing in a pile of potential legislation for quite some time. The bill was rushed through while gaining Republican support and was unanimously approved. The GOP also realized the power of the unions. The date was set for the first Monday in September, but in the time there had been discussion about selecting May 1st because certain Socialist elements in the labor movement preferred to celebrate the holiday on International Workers’ Day.
Cleveland, a good Democrat, went along with his Party’s urgency and within a mere six days after the strike was ended, he signed the bill. But, he was ostracized by the Democrats for his sin of interfering in the intentions and serious efforts of big labor. He did succeed in getting the date separated from the May 1 celebration of International Workers’ Day because he was concerned that observance of Labor Day on that day would be linked to the more radical Socialist and Communist elements that had rallied together on May 1, 1894, to commemorate the Haymarket Square Riot, which had also taken place in Chicago during his previous administration. He was somewhat aware that even by that time, Chicago had become a hotbed of Socialist/Communist organizing activity.
Another irony in the aftermath of that turbulent summer of 1894 was that Grover Cleveland became the goat of the problems, as he was castigated by his own Party. Especially Democrat John Altgeld, the governor of Illinois and Democrat John Hopkins, the mayor of Chicago, were outraged when the President sent troops into Chicagoland. These two, along with the majority of Democrats refused to support any hope Cleveland had for re-election. Cleveland proved to be way too conservative for the Democratic Party, and clearly unwilling to allow big labor to have its way. Despite having restored order, as he successfully took responsibility to end one of the most violent strikes in U.S. history that had affected the welfare of American citizens, Cleveland had angered big labor; thus, he was flushed from his Party.
Perhaps the biggest irony was that Eugene Victor Debs was transformed into a Socialist hero, and while Cleveland would never again run for president, Debs got to run for president several times. In the aftermath of that turbulent summer of 1894, Debs was arrested and served six months in prison. The Pullman Strike left a serious memory that further radicalized Eugene Debs. During his incarceration, he studied the writings of Karl Marx and came to believe that American workers would not get what they deserved until through elections they could eventually gain control of governmental power themselves, and then they could begin the process of replacing capitalism with socialism. Yet, they have never given up their fight, and Debs would be proud indeed.