(KTVI) – John Pertzborn explains the first Labor Day was recognized by the federal government in 1894. It arrived after a nationwide railroad strike that began in Chicago. Workers were angered by wage reductions and lay-offs. But that strike was just one of many labor battles to affect St. Louis. Three years later here was the coal miners strike of 1897.
St. Louis and the rest of the country was dealing with a four-year old depression 116 years ago. There were layoffs, pay cuts, and in St. Louis there were calls for a nationwide coal miners strike by an anti-capitalist railroad union boss named Eugene Debs. He was a man who would later unsuccessfully run for US president four times on the socialist ticket.
The United Mine Workers , a new union, agreed to strike on July 4, 1897. More then 150,000 non-union miners joined the walkout.
Then St. Louis got involved and that strike lead to an emergency assembly in St. Louis of 300 different union delegates. They all gathered in the Masonic temple at the corner of Market and 7th Streets, where Mike Shannon's restaurant and Kiener Plaza sit today.
Eugene Debs of the American Railway Union was the keynote speaker, along with Mary Harris, also known as "Mother Jones" (as in today's Mother Jones magazine). The two threw support behind a walkout. Mother Jones even said she wanted to be buried in a cemetery for miners.
The St. Louis Globe Democrat chastised the assembly calling it a "great deal of folly".
So what happened to the miners?
The call for a general strike was voted down. Instead, the assembly asked president William McKinley to intervene.
The delegates did manage to resolve pay issues at the assembly. The United Mine Workers became the largest trade union with more 100,000 members.
Mother Jones kept her word. She's buried in Union Miner's Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois.