United Steelworkers president Phillip Murray (seated, left) and United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis (seated, center) at South Park in an undated picture. (Photo credit: Unknown) At the request of Uncle Sam, workers at the J&L plant at South 27th Street spent Labor Day in 1943 on the job. Here, many leave for lunch. (Pittsburgh Press photo) Labor Day crowd gathers at Pennsylvania Station at then end of World War II. (Pittsburgh Press photo) Samuel Moore, cement mason fro California, PA, at a Labor Day celebration in 1984 (Charles Fox/Post-Gazette)

Sept. 2, 1940: Labor Day in the Steel City

For the holiday you may be enjoying today, you can thank a man named George Pullman, President Grover Cleveland and, of course, cynical politics.

The name Pullman may sound familiar. He was an industrialist who developed a railroad sleeping car — the Pullman car — then built a company town (named Pullman, of course) for the workers who toiled in his factory. This was back in the late 1800s.

During a business downturn in 1894, Pullman cut workers’ wages, but not rents.  When workers rebelled, Pullman turned to President Grover Cleveland for help. Cleveland sent in federal troops. You can guess the result.

Afterward, Cleveland figured he’d better do something to curry favor with labor. So he, along with Congress, designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Legislation flew through Congress less than a week after the end of the Pullman Strike.

So a national holiday celebrating labor is brought to us by two men who organized a brutal smackdown of workers. Two years later, Cleveland lost the Democratic nomination for President to William Jennings Bryant.

These days, Labor Day marks the end of summer and the beginning of school and the NFL season (usually it starts on the Thursday after the holiday). Retailers love Labor Day — look at all the sales. For many retail workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are non-union, it’s just another long day.

In the Post-Gazette photo files, we found dozens of images of Pittsburghers celebrating Labor Day. Many of the most striking images were made in the early 1940s, when patriotism was mixed with pride in the city’s industrial might. Crowds lined Fifth Avenue while thousands of workers marched in the street.


(One picture of steel workers exiting a gate on the South Side was manipulated at the time of its original publication in 1943. Workers were cut from other images and pasted into the picture, possibly to make the crowd leaving the mill appear larger.)

In a photograph shot on Labor Day in 1945, just days after VJ Day, workers carrying bags and luggage pack Pennsylvania Station. According to the picture’s published caption, many had not taken a vacation since the beginning of the war.

— Steve Mellon

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