Monday, April 29, 2013
Mittleman: The Pullman Strike of 1894
March 25, 2013
The Pullman Strike of 1894
The Pullman Strike of 1894 was an iconic example of the U.S. working class striking and organizing due to unfair compensation and rising costs of the standard of living. The strike is a significant historical event in United States history, displaying the economic strife and oppression of the working class and railway workers of the late 1890s. The strike is also widely known for laying down the foundation for future labor unions such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) because of the American Railway Union (ARU) and its role in the strike. The Pullman strike was also the first time the federal government, under the Grover Cleveland Administration, took a special interest in labor unions (specifically the ARU) and aggressively put an end to the strike. The famous strike also brought attention to Eugene Deps, founder of the ARU and future frontman of the Socialist Party of America.
The Pullman Strike consisted of railway workers that were employed by the Pullman Palace Car Company, owned by George Pullman. George Pullman and his company were known for designing and producing luxurious railroad sleeping and dining cars and were responsible for, “the operation of its cars upon about 125,000 miles of railroad (three-fourths of the railway of the country at the time), the manufacture and repair of such cars, the manufacture of cars of all kinds for the general market, the care and management, as owner and landlord, of the town of Pullman.”1 Pullman feared impending urban riots and social disorder because of the growing number of lower class people that were living and working in degenerating conditions.2 To quell this impending scenario, George Pullman underwent an ambitious endeavor of developing a company owned town south of Chicago city limits in order to avoid the city’s baleful influences and to promote a healthier lifestyle.3 Pullman’s planned community increased productivity and elevated working conditions with the implementation of a modern factory. Pullman’s town offered residents “…A state-of-the-art home complete with amenities such as indoor plumbing and electric lighting that previously had been reserved for the middle and upper classes,”4 all for a reasonable rent. Employees of all levels, from unskilled workers to executives, resided in Pullman’s planned town and benefited from town services and utilities, planned spaces for recreation and carefully selected retail outlets. Ideally, the harmonious setting of the town would promote better working relationships between different classes and would elevate the moral standing and social behaviors of the factory workers.5 Pullman’s planned community is very similar to the company town the fictional Joad family resides in in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In both Pullman’s town and the company town in Grapes of Wrath, company owned and operated markets and shops sold goods above the standard price of goods sold outside the planned communities and both towns were located far enough from other shops to dissuade residents from leaving and buying from other shops.
In 1893, the United States experienced an economic depression brought on by a number of factors such as underconsumption (the economy was producing goods and services at a higher rate than society was consuming and the resulting inventory accumulation led firms to reduce employment and cut back production), a dip in U.S. gold reserves, increase in government spending, weakened agricultural prosperity, etc.6 Due to the economic depression, George Pullman responded by reducing wages in order to cut costs. However, instead of accordingly adjusting the rent in his planned town of Pullman, Pullman maintained the cost of rent and goods sold within the planned community resulting in Pullman Palace Car employees struggling to meet their rental payments. The following testimonial of Pullman Palace Car employee Thomas W. Heathcoate, revealed the continuously reduced price of piecework and the desire of the working class men to organize and introduces the largest labor union of the time, the American Railway Union,
“Along about September 1893, our wages began to be reduced because work was slack, and they kept reducing our pay each month. They kept reducing the price of piecework until it was almost impossible for us to live; in January 1894, the men wanted to strike, but we were not organized at that time; and in order to succeed in securing a higher rate of pay it became necessary for us to organize in some way; we could not see any more feasible plan than to organize in the American Railway Union, for the reason, we believed, that union was stronger than any other organization in the country.”7
With tensions rising among workers in the Pullman community, Pullman Palace Car Company declared itself closed on May 11, 1894. O June 20, 1893, the ARU was founded by popular labor organizer Eugene Debs. Debs was a locomotive fireman that from early on in his career advocated the organization of labor by industry rather than by craft.8 The ARU accepted any white railway worker except for those above the rank of foreman.9 According to the Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July, 1894 by United States Strike Commission Carroll Davidson Wright, between June 9 and June 26 1894 the ARU regularly convened in in Chicago, represented 465 local unions and about 150,000 members.10 At these regular conventions, the Pullman situation was frequently discussed and local unions unanimously voted to cease handling Pullman cars unless the Pullman company consented to arbitration. On June 26, 1894 members of the ARU went on strike and boycotted operating Pullman cars. The strike and boycott specifically targeted only Pullman cars, railway workers on strike had no qualms with performing their duties on other railway cars. The strike garnered sympathy for the Pullman employees from other railroad employees due to experiencing similar circumstances such as wage reductions, blacklisting and the shared point of view of the General Managers’ Association being a menace.11 The General Managers’ Association represented twenty-four railroad companies with terminals in Chicago. These railroad companies included some of the largest in the country and constituted a major portion of the American railroad industry and one of the companies included was the Pullman Palace Car Company. When the ARU boycotted Pullman cars, the General Managers’ Association was determined to stand firm against the boycott and the Association became the prime foe of the ARU.12 The Association recruited desperate job seeking workers to act as strike-breakers against the ARU. Also, the Association took steps to turn public sentiment against the ARU by urging members of the Association to attach Pullman cars to mail, freight and commuter trains. By doing so, these respected services were halted resulting in increasing hostility towards the strike and boycott.
The strike and boycott had grown to exceeding original anticipations which led to disorders and in some cases violence. On July 2, a federal injunction was issued against the leaders of the ARU and prevented them from “…compelling, or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force, or violence, railroad employees to refuse or fail to perform their duties.”13 On July 7th, the leaders, such as Eugene Debs, of the ARU were indicted, arrested and held under $10,000 bail. During his imprisonment, Debs read the works for Karl Marx and was strongly influenced by Marx’s ideals. Debs would later be nominated as the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party and campaigned five times for the presidency.14
With the leadership of the ARU imprisoned, the threat of mail cars being halted and a federal injunction being served, President Grover Cleveland issued 16,000 federal troops to quell the strike. The strikers reacted to the federal troops with violence and riots broke out all over Chicago. On July 7th, rioters spread fires that damaged seven buildings of the World’s Colombian Exposition in Jackson Park and 700 railcars were destroyed and $340,000 worth of property damage was done to South Chicago Panhandle’s yards. With the strike becoming more and more disorganized and strikers losing sight of their reason for striking in the first place, the ARU tried to enlist the help of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) but was unsuccessful. After the AFL declined to help the ARU, Eugene Debs and other leaders of the ARU attempted to end the strike on the grounds that strikers would be rehired without prejudice except for those who were convicted of crimes. The General Managers’ Association declined the ARU’s conditions and the strike gradually ceased on its own and trains began to operate with more frequency and on August 2nd Pullman Palace Car Company reopened.15
Although the ARU was unsuccessful with raising wages or lowering the cost of rent for Pullman employees and residents, the strike displayed how much power there is in organizing, labor unions and strength in numbers. Another outcome of the strike was how workers can react during desperate times. The Pullman strike might not have occurred if George Pullman adjusted the rent in his town accordingly to the reduced wages of Pullman workers. The strike was also the first time the federal government took such an important role in quelling a strike. Also, it could be said that the ARU and the strike were the catalyst for Eugene Debs and his future radical socialist ideals.
1 Carroll Davidson Wright, Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July, 1894, (U.S Government Printing Office, 1895), 21.
2 Baxter, Jane. 2012. "The Paradox of a Capitalist Utopia: Visionary Ideals and Lived Experience in the Pullman Community 1880-1900." International Journal Of Historical Archaeology 16, no. 4: 651-665. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 24, 2013).
3 Baxter, Jane. 2012. "The Paradox of a Capitalist Utopia: Visionary Ideals and Lived Experience in the Pullman Community 1880-1900." International Journal Of Historical Archaeology 16, no. 4: 651-665. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 24, 2013).
4 Baxter, Jane. 2012. "The Paradox of a Capitalist Utopia: Visionary Ideals and Lived Experience in the Pullman Community 1880-1900." International Journal Of Historical Archaeology 16, no. 4: 651-665. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 24, 2013).
5 Baxter, Jane. 2012. "The Paradox of a Capitalist Utopia: Visionary Ideals and Lived Experience in the Pullman Community 1880-1900." International Journal Of Historical Archaeology 16, no. 4: 651-665. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost (accessed March 24, 2013).
6 Economic History Association , "The Depression of 1893." Accessed March 24, 2013. http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/whitten.panic.1893.
7 Heathcoate Thomas W., (Pullman Palace Car Company Worker), "Congresstional Investigation of the Pullman Strike," , March 24, 2013, http://www.phschool.com/atschool/primary_sources/report_chicago_strike.html.
8 Public Broadcasting Services, "American Experience." Accessed March 24, 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wilson/peopleevents/p_debs.html.
9 Stanford University, "Rise of the American Railway Union, 1893-1894 ." Accessed March 24, 2013. http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/railroaded/gallery/interactive-visualizations/rise-american-railway-union-1893-1894.
10 Carroll Davidson Wright, Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July, 1894, (U.S Government Printing Office, 1895), 25.
11 Carroll Davidson Wright, Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July, 1894, (U.S Government Printing Office, 1895), 26.
12 Federal Judicial Center, "The Debs Case: Labor, Capital, and the Federal Courts of the 1890s ." Accessed March 24, 2013. http://www.fjc.gov/history/home.nsf/page/tu_debs_bio_gma.html.
13 Carroll Davidson Wright, Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July, 1894, (U.S Government Printing Office, 1895), 26.
14 Public Broadcasting Services, "American Experience." Accessed March 24, 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/wilson/peopleevents/p_debs.html.