- The Washington Times - Monday, September 3, 2001

If there is anything ironic about Labor Day, now more than 100 years old, it is that both unions and railroads, the protagonists whose battles gave rise to a holiday to placate workingmen, now have minor roles on the contemporary economic stage.

Labor unions are dwindling in membership these days, and railroad whistles are the faintest of the transportation sounds. Even the railroad's labor counterpart in the air, the recent Comair pilot strike, was conspicuous for its mild overtones.

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 on 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 unleashed a torrent of invective.

Troops were ordered to fix bayonets, and within minutes panic ensued. "Seventeen Citizens Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia," read a headline in an "extra" edition of a Pittsburgh newspaper.

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 damage from the fire and looting was estimated at $5 million. 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 there also 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 in 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."

By 1894, when the Pullman, Ill., railroad strike and boycott created a division among labor leaders, 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.

No doubt, Labor Day 2001 comes with a different climate than that which surrounded the labor-railroad strife of the late 19th century. Union workers today lose more time to coffee breaks than they do to manning the picket lines each year. And even the contemporary terminology "work stoppages" represents a far cry from the more emotional language of a century ago.

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