The Cottage on the Moor is a place where I'll keep a fire going on cold winter nights and a breeze flowing through the windows on steamy summer days. There will be a "cup of warm" waiting for you to stimulate your mind. I'll try to keep it fresh by adding something every week or two. So come often. I hope you find worth your while.
That is one of the contentious issue of our day. President
Obama recently attempted to argue that any successful endeavor is the result of
the labors of many people and many institutions, including the government. His
opponents in the election have seized upon one phrase in his remarks and
attempted to paint him as anti-entrepreneurial. But, despite their dishonest
interpretation of his remarks, they do, at least, give us a reason to ask the
question, “Who built this?”
In the late 1800s a movement had been afoot for several
years to have a day set aside to honor working people, but it had not gained
much ground because working people, though numerous in the millions, were
essentially without political power and easily ignored. Any attempt by workers
to organize and bargain collectively was crushed with the aid of government
troops and at the insistence of the Industrial Barons of the day. However, the
situation regarding the establishment of a “Labor Day” changed dramatically in
late 1894 and, almost miraculously, Labor Day was born.
But a little history is needed so I’ll provide a summary of
broadcast that I referenced before. You can read the entire piece in a few
minutes by following
George Pullman was an industrialist whose company, in the
late 1800s, built railroad sleeping cars that bore his name. A “Pullman” came
to be the name for any railroad car that provided sleeping births just as a
“Kleenex” has come to be, for many people, the name of any facial tissue.
Pullman was apparently a humane man by his lights, and
probably by the lights of many in his generation. Concerned about the
corruption of morals engendered in a big city environment, he built his own
company town, named for him, of course, just south of Chicago. In addition to
the facilities needed to produce his sleeper cars, the town provided housing
for his workers and their families, a company bank, a company store, etc. Pullman
set the worker’s wages – high enough to keep them working, but not enough to
tempt them into sinful opulence; that was reserved for Pullman and his fellow
industrial barons. He set the rent for
housing, set the prices in the company store, paid their wages from the company
bank, minus the cost of rent. It was a utopian existence. No doubt many of the
workers agreed . . . as long as it worked.
However, in 1893 the nation fell into one of its recurring
depressions and sales of railroad sleeper cars fell off. Pullman had to lay off
a large portion of his workers and those who remained had their wages cut . . .
but not their rent. As the workers situation became more and more desperate
they began to organize a union under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs,
demanding higher pay and lower rents. The result was inevitable. President
Cleveland, yielding to pressure from his wealthy supporters, declared the
strike a federal crime and sent in 12,000 federal troops to put it down. It was
the way things were done then and, as we discovered in Wisconsin last year, the
way things are still done when too much power is placed in the hands of one
side or the other. A couple of strikers died and Debs went to prison. So much
for that labor union. Anyone else want to try? The workers went back to their
jobs under Pullman’s rules and at his wages.
However, 1894 was an election year and Cleveland was locked
in a difficult contest for re-election. Though he was not willing to support
the Pullman workers in their hour of need he hoped to persuade them to help him
in his. He threw his support behind the establishment of a national Labor Day,
hoping to placate the disgruntled workers whose hopes his “army” had crushed a
few months earlier. A bill establishing a national Labor Day sailed quickly
through Congress with bi-partisan support and was signed into law shortly
before Election Day. It did not gain the labor vote for Cleveland – he lost the
election anyway – but Labor Day had become a reality.
This Pyrrhic victory for labor has given politicians, for a
hundred succeeding years, the opportunity to praise the efforts of the working
people of our nation; to tell them, “This Land Is Your Land. You built it with
So, who did build the Pullman empire? George Pullman
certainly had the vision that propelled it into existence. His money, and the
money of his stockholders, furnished the factory and tools needed to produce
the Pullman Sleepers. But what about the hundreds of workers whose 10 hour days
caused the cars to roll off the assembly line. Or does their labor not count
because they were paid for it? But so was Pullman and the stockholders. And
what about the citizens of the U.S. whose valuable public lands were give to
the railroads at little or no cost? Or what about the tax payers who footed the
bill for 12,000 federal soldiers to crush the workers strike and allow Pullman
to continue paying wages less than their cost of living? And what about those
workers who struggled, in the years after the strike, to live on such wages?
Pullman deserves to be remembered for the contribution his
idea made to comfortable rail travel. He is entitled to a fair return on his
investment and a fair wage for the leadership he gave to his company. But he
did not build the Pullman Company alone. Every worker in his factory, and every
holder of stock in his company, and every citizen of the United States had a
hand in the success of his enterprise.
But in the end, Pullman got the money, and the bragging
rights. Eugene V. Debs got prison time. A couple of strikers got “early
retirement.” The workers of America got Labor Day. This Labor Day 2012, at our
family gathering, three members had to work. They were busy “building”
businesses that others will take credit for building.