Monday, May 20, 2013

Econs: The Pullman Strike of 1894


Nicholas Econs
The Pullman Strike of 1894
The Pullman strike was one of the most influential labor movements in United States history. It exemplified the strife between working class and owners to a degree that was heightened by the national attention it captured, especially when President Cleveland sent government troops to squash the railroad car workers’ protests. The motivation for the strike and boycott was resistance to Pullman Company owner George M. Pullman and his refusal to arbitrate for higher wages or lower rent in the Pullman town. Pullman employees joined the American Railroad Union (ARU) and declared a boycott on all Pullman cars. This single labor strike quickly grew into a hostile event.


The beginnings of this event start in the paternalistic town George M. Pullman created in Illinois in the 1880s meant to revolutionize industry towns globally. This social experiment failed on a grand scale due to the very principles he designed to project the working class into a higher standard of living. The goal of this town was to be a modern factory town or “company town” that would elevate living conditions of employees and increase productivity for the Pullman Company. All workers would have to live in a house provided by the company that would be at a “reasonable rent” (which was actually above the average of the same location at the time) and provide such accommodations as indoor plumbing and electric lighting that were previously exclusive to the middle or upper class. 1 Not only would the housing be up to a better standard but the conventional “factory town” was synonymous with run down areas of poverty. Pullman’s town would have parks, retail stores, churches, theatres, all specifically chosen and approved by Pullman himself. Drinking and bars were exclusively banned from this town. The town was formed at a time where thinking in terms of “Gilded Age” was very present, or the fear of the growing lower classes, especially in urban areas. The lay out of the town was that the executives lived in the houses closest by the factory and the lower divisions far out, in which they would have to pass these houses on the way to work and be reminded of the polarity that existed between the classes in the almost feudal like design.2 This would ultimately be the demise of the town because with the heavy paternalistic manner in which it was ran the outskirt laborers would unify under their hardships.
These hardships were only amplified when the great depression/recession of the 1890s took a toll on a number of industries, including the railway and railcar industries. A number of railroad companies felt the need to cut hours, including the Pullman Company, but workers were still required to pay the same rent despite their recently-reduced wages. This was the catalyst of the Pullman railroad strike.3
The workers then formed a committee to try and reason with the Pullman Company that with lower hours they would expect the rent to be decreased proportionally, and on May 7th the offer was promptly declined. Pullman rationalized his decree by saying that his employees who voted for Cleveland were directly responsible for the state of economic recession they were in. He refused any sort of arbitration and ultimately said as Thomas Burke Grant phrases it “You have elected Cleveland; he has ruined the country, and you can now fry in your own juice or beg or starve.” Which Pullman did not directly say but he did make speeches about the fate they would seal by voting for this democratic candidate.4 To add on to the refusal of the deal three of the negotiating committee members were fired, which sent the workers into an uproar and they decided they were going to strike. On May 10th thousands of employees walked off the job, and the next day the Pullman Plant closed. 5
The strike began as a peaceful showing of workers being mistreated and the desire for fairer wages or a reduction in housing rent. This went on for weeks with the Pullman management not budging on their position. At this time the fairly new formed American Railroad Union under the leadership of Eugene Debs, with a membership of 130,000 men, met in Chicago. The delegates sympathized with the strikers of Pullman and the result was a decision to boycott all Pullman cars until they would agree to arbitration. Here the major turning point in the strike took place, instead of a private in house conflict it became a public one, from a local conflict to a national one.6 The pieces were aligned for a strike on a massive scale.
On June 26th, the ARU switchman started denying to switch trains with Pullman cars and in return the General Managers Association began firing these workers. The strike, and more effectively the boycott, began rapidly expanding essentially shutting down the Chicago rail yards and the twenty-four rail lines in the city.7 July 2nd a federal injunction was issued against Eugene Debs and other leaders of the ARU, preventing them from communicating with their subordinates and chaos ensued. At the beginning Governor Altgeld of Illinois ensured President Cleveland that the local authorities would be able to contain and put down the strike but these efforts failed and he said he would rely on the National Guard to enforce the law. The last thing the Governor wanted to have was federal troops involved. However with the federal injunction formed and federal mail-trains being delayed this eventually happened.8 On July 3rd troops entered Chicago opposing many protests from Governor Altgeld. The presence of the troops sent the strikers into an outrage. July 4th marked the day the strike turned violent, with mobs of workers setting off fireworks, tipping over rail cars and destroying railway property. Aiding in the mayhem of the situation was the inability of labor leaders to communicate to the groups due to the effective injunction. Rioting continued to grow and on July 7th a large fire destroyed 7 buildings in Jackson Park. This became one of the most costly strikes with over 700 railcars being destroyed and $340,000 in damages in South Chicago Panhandle yards. With the heavy military and police present the results turned fatal and on July 7th they fired into the crowd killing a total of 12 people.9 Tides began to shift and Eugene Debs along with four other ARU leaders were again arrested for violating the indictment. The strike was failing at a massive rate and after the AFL denied helping the ARU, they tried to settle with the General Managers Association to let strikers back to work with no prejudice aside from those who were convicted of crimes, but this too was rejected. The strike continued to dwindle rapidly and on August 2nd the Pullman factory reopened and railcars began to move again.10
Though the Pullman strike was considered a failure in respect that they didn’t receive arbitration or lowered rent, it shows the power that laborers, especially when they are backed by unions, can demonstrate. This strike captured national attention and direct action from President Cleveland to put the strike to an end. A major issue with this movement was the injunction against the labor leaders, especially Eugene Debs, who could not motivate and keep his followers in order. Events such as the Pullman Strike stood as proof that workers needed, and demanded, the rights and protections of collective bargaining, which would be given to them in the next century under the Wagner Act and New Deal.

1  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 May 10, 2013).

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 May 10, 2013).

3 The Week. (1894, Jul 07). Outlook (1893-1924), 50, 5-5. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/136937081?accountid=14172

4 Grant, Thomas Burke. "Pullman And Its Lessons." American Journal of Politics. no. 2 (1894).

5 Kansas Heritage Group, "THE PULLMAN STRIKE CHICAGO, 1894." Last modified March 8, 1998. Accessed May 10, 2013. http://www.kansasheritage.org/pullman/index.html.

6 The Week. (1894, Jul 07). Outlook (1893-1924), 50, 5-5. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/136937081?accountid=14172

7 Kansas Heritage Group, "THE PULLMAN STRIKE CHICAGO, 1894." Last modified March 8, 1998. Accessed May 10, 2013. http://www.kansasheritage.org/pullman/index.html.

8 Kansas Heritage Group, "THE PULLMAN STRIKE CHICAGO, 1894." Last modified March 8, 1998. Accessed May 10, 2013. http://www.kansasheritage.org/pullman/index.html.

9 Kansas Heritage Group, "THE PULLMAN STRIKE CHICAGO, 1894." Last modified March 8, 1998. Accessed May 10, 2013. http://www.kansasheritage.org/pullman/index.html.

10 Kansas Heritage Group, "THE PULLMAN STRIKE CHICAGO, 1894." Last modified March 8, 1998. Accessed May 10, 2013. http://www.kansasheritage.org/pullman/index.html.

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