Can America celebrate Labor Day without celebrating the Laborer?
Could there be a connection between Labor Day and Freemasonry through which they share an intersection in the forgotten annals of history on why we celebrate this national American holiday?
The U.S. Department of Labor defines the Labor Day holiday as a day
…dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
As a day to recognize the common laborer in America, Labor Day can be traced to 1882 when it was first proposed as a holiday by machinist Matthew Maguire who proposed the idea while serving as the secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. In just a short time the momentum to make the day a National Holiday grew to a crescendo on the heels of the violent conflict between rail workers and the US military in 1894.
Stemming from, essentially, an unfair control of labor and housing, the Pullman Strike began as a result of the refusal to include reductions in housing costs for the laid off workers who were forced to live in the company town of Pullman, today a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.
The town, George Pullman envisioned, would be
a model community, a total environment, superior to that available to the working class elsewhere…[from which] he hoped to avoid strikes, attract the most skilled workers and attain greater productivity as a result of the better health, environment and spirit of his employees.
When laid off workers, who were forced to live in company housing, were let go the company who owned the town (and the housing therein) refused to lower their rents on company owned properties. The result of the layoff and unaltered rents created undue hardships for the laid off workers and their families who had few options because of the sudden loss of income. Company owner George Pullman refused to address the issue, or go into arbitration over it, prompting a wildcat strike with the local Pullman Palace Car Company.
Gradually the work stoppage grew into a national strike organized by the American Railway Union reaching its height when it became a national boycott that included train stoppages through the efforts of close to 250,000 workers in 27 states disrupting national transportation lines, and consequently mail delivery.
With a growing strike, the Federal Government under President Grover Cleveland, procured a court injunction in hand and moved in with the Army to stop the obstruction of trains which (which carried mail) ultimately costing $80,000,000 in damages from riots and sabotage, and leaving 13 strikers dead and 57 wounded.
At its conclusion, the U.S. Army with its court injunction broke a blockade of trains in Lockwood, Montana which precipitated the end of the strike. In the end the union was dissolved, the trains were made to move again, mail began to flow, the American Railway Union leader was imprisoned and American workers were given Labor Day six days following the collapse of the strike. Interesting to note, President Grover Cleveland, with the full support of Congress, unanimously voted to create the Labor Day holiday we celebrate today in a conciliatory gesture towards American Labor.
In its foundation, the national celebration of the holiday was to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations, with the Sunday before the Holiday a Labor Sunday, dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.”
So how does Freemasonry factor into the complex composition of the creation of this national Holiday?
Pullman established Pullman Palace Car Company in 1862 with the goal of building luxury train cars with all of the available amenities of the day. In support of his early factory, the Pullman Company constructed a company town, uniquely named Pullman, within which some 4,000 acres housed 6,000 company employees and their dependents ultimately at the center of the Pullman Strike and the creation of Labor Day. In one entry about the town, it is suggested that employees were required to live in the town even when cheaper housing was nearby. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the Pullman Company, its easy to see today how the conflict of corporate and worker interest would conflict as it reads:
The company built a company town, Pullman, Illinois on 4,000 acres (16 km²), 14 mi (23 km) south of Chicago in 1880. The town, entirely company-owned, provided housing, markets, a library, churches and entertainment for the 6,000 company employees and an equal number of dependents. Employees were required to live in Pullman, despite the fact that cheaper rentals could be found in nearby communities. One employee is quoted as saying “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell”. Alcohol was prohibited in the town, as George Pullman found it a distasteful habit for his workers; though it was available in the company’s Hotel Florence, primarily for the benefit of the hotel guests as it was generally too expensive for laborers.
Pullman, a member of Renovation Lodge No. 97, Albion, New York, in his construction of the city of Pullman converted the swampy southern Chicago landscape into a planned industrial town complete with facilities for a Masonic Temple. The temple housed Palace Lodge No. 765, A.F. & A.M., Pullman R.A.M. Chapter, and Woodlawn-Imperial R. & S.M. Council.
Such was Pullman’s association with Freemasonry that in 1894 he was given a Masonic Cornerstone laying ceremony in honor of his father, Lewis Pullman (also a Freemason), which hosted two hundred Masons from Albion, Medina, Holley, and Lockport who processed along the Main Street for the cornerstone ceremony at Pullman Memorial Universalist Church of Albion, New York, today part of the Unitarian Universalist tradition.
On the other side of the labor dispute was labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Also a man of great passion, Debs was a man possessed with the welfare and well being of the worker who was greatly involved in the developing American labor movements making five runs for the White House under the Socialist Party, his 1912 run receiving 5.99% of the popular vote on a working man political ticket. While not a Freemason, Debs was an interesting luminary becoming, the most well known socialist living in America. As the organizer behind the Pullman Strike and boycott, Debs served a six month jail sentence for violating the federal injunction.
While Debs has no Masonic connection, what is interesting to note are his many associations that were grounded in the foundation of fraternal brotherhood namely in the trade unions which you can see carry the earmarks of that mystical chain of union in his own motto of “Equality, fraternity and justice.” Personal ideals aside, Debs held memberships in several national unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Brotherhood of Railway Firemen, the Industrial Workers of the World, and, of course, the American Railway Union. Through those affiliations, you can get a sense of his passion for epitomizing what it means to be in fellowship with those you are in union with.
Ultimately, Debs passion was the betterment of the working class based on fairness, the basis for which he found in his saying “Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most – that is, those who work hardest, and at the most difficult and most menial tasks, have the least.” This could, perhaps, summarize his involvement with the labor movements. Today, Debs work is remembered through a Terre Haute Indiana foundation founded in his name, The Eugene V. Debs Foundation, whose mission is to “keep alive the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism epitomized by Debs.”
From these two, Pullman and Debs, we can see parallels in passion for brotherhood and, while at odds with the promulgation of those passions, both at the nexus of recognizing the importance of Labor in America. Pullman, a Freemason, saw at some level the importance of the spiritual need to belong to a fraternal chain of union and Debs the physical political manifestation of that ideal in the real life condition of workers in brotherhood raising the common lot of those whose blood and sweat continue to serve the growth of American prosperity.
From their intersection of history, the Pullman and Debs conflict gave us the Labor Day holiday so that while we take a much appreciated rest at the end of summer we can celebrate the esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations whose efforts have given us this day to be celebrated.