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The Pullman Strike of 1894 was one of the most influential events in the history of U.S. labor. What began as a walkout by railroad workers in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, escalated into the country's first national strike. The events surrounding the strike catapulted several leaders to prominence and brought national focus to issues concerning labor unrest, Socialism, and the need for new efforts to balance the economic interests of labor and capitalism.
In 1859, 28-year-old George M. Pullman, an ambitious entrepreneur who had moved from New York to Chicago, found success as a building contractor. When a new sewage system was installed that necessitated the raising of downtown buildings by ten feet, he ran a business where he oversaw large teams of men working with huge jacks to raise the buildings. Pullman quickly became wealthy.
Continuing his penchant for innovation, Pullman turned in 1867 to the subject of railroad travel and created a new line of luxury railroad cars featuring comfortable seating, restaurants, and improved sleeping accommodations. As demand for the "Pullman coaches" grew, Pullman further demonstrated his financial acumen. He did not sell his sleeping cars; instead he leased them to railroad companies. By 1893, the Pullman Company operated over 2,000 cars on almost every major U.S. railroad, and the company was valued at $62 million.
A firm believer in capitalism and moral uplift, Pullman gathered a group of investors and began to build the nation's first model industrial town near Lake Calumet on the southwest edge of Chicago. Between 1880 and 1884, the village of Pullman was built on 4,000 acres. In addition to the company's manufacturing plants, the town contained a hotel, a school, a library, a church, and office buildings as well as parks and recreational facilities. Houses were well-built brick structures that featured cutting-edge conveniences of the era such as indoor plumbing and gas heat. Other innovations included regular garbage pick-up, a modern sewer system, and landscaped streets. An equally firm believer in the necessity of making a profit, Pullman operated his town as he operated his company, leasing the housing to his workers and selling them food, gas, and water at a 10 percent markup.
A significant drop in the country's gold reserves, prodigious spending of U.S. Treasury surpluses, and the passage in 1890 of the Sherman Silver Act led to the financial panic of 1893. The ensuing corporate failures, mass layoffs of workers, and bank closings plunged the country into a major depression. In response, the Pullman Company fired more than a third of the workforce and instituted reduced hours and wage cuts of more than 25 percent for the remaining hourly employees. Because Pullman had promised the town's investors a 6 percent return, there was no corresponding reduction in the rents and other charges paid by the workers. Rent was deducted directly from their paychecks, leaving many workers with no money to feed and clothe their families.
In desperation, many workers joined the newly established American Railway Union (ARU) that claimed a membership of 465 local unions and 150,000 workers. ARU organizer and president eugene v. debs had become nationally prominent when he led a short but successful strike against the Great Northern Railway in early 1894. In May 1894, the workers struck the Pullman Company. Debs directed the strike and widened its scope, asking other train workers outside Chicago to refuse to work on trains that included Pullman cars. While the workers did agree to permit trains carrying the U.S. mail to operate as long as they did not contain Pullman cars, the railroads refused to compromise. Instead, they added Pullman cars to all their trains, including the ones that only transported freight.
Despite repeated attempts by the union to discuss the situation with Pullman, he refused to negotiate. As the strike spread, entire rail lines were shut down. The railroads quickly formed the General Managers Association (GMA) and announced that switchmen who did not move rail cars would be fired immediately. The ARU responded with a union-wide walkout. By the end of June, 50,000 railroad workers had walked off their jobs.
The economic threat and sporadic violence led the GMA to call for federal troops to be brought in. Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, who was sympathetic to the cause of the striking workers, refused the request for troops. In July, U.S. attorney general Richard Olney, who supported the GMA, issued a broad Injunction called the Omnibus Indictment that prohibited strikers and union representatives from attempting to persuade workers to abandon their jobs.When striking workers were read the indictment and refused to disperse, Olney obtained a federal court injunction holding the workers in Contempt and, in effect, declaring the strike illegal. When the workers still refused to end the strike, Debs and other leaders were arrested and Olney requested the federal troops saying they were needed to move the mail. President grover cleveland sent more than 2,000 troops to Chicago, and fighting soon broke out between the rioting strikers and soldiers. Soldiers killed more than a dozen workers and wounded many more.
With strike leaders in prison and a growing public backlash over the looting and Arson committed by some striking workers, the strike was effectively broken. Most of the workers returned to their jobs in August, although some were blacklisted and never again worked for the railroads. Debs was charged with contempt of court for disobeying the court injunction and conspiracy to obstruct the U.S. mail. clarence darrow, an attorney who had quit his job as general counsel of the Chicago and North Western Railway, defended Debs and the other ARU leaders, but they were convicted and spent six months in prison. They were released in November 1895.
Darrow went on to become a prominent defense attorney as well as a well-known public orator. Debs, whose contempt of court conviction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 15 S.Ct. 900, 39 L.Ed. 1092 (1895), was further radicalized by his experiences. In high demand as a popular speaker particularly in the industrial states of the North, Debs became the influential leader of the Socialist Party, running for president several times between 1900 and 1920.
Pullman, who continued to regard himself as a morally upright man despite the critical findings of a presidential commission appointed to investigate the strike, died in 1897. Fearful that his body might be degraded or stolen by former strikers, Pullman's family had his body buried in a concrete and steel casket in a tomb covered with steel-reinforced concrete. In 1971, the former "company" town of Pullman was designated as a national landmark district.
The Pullman Strike of 1894 and its aftermath had an indelible effect on the course of the labor movement in the United States. The use of federal troops and the labor injunction sent a message to U.S. workers that would not change until the New Deal of the 1930s. The polarization of management and labor would continue for decades.
Hirsch, Susan E. 2003. After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman. Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press.
Papke, David Ray. 1999. The Pullman Case. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.
Stein, R. Conrad. 2001. The Pullman Strike and the Labor Movement in American History. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow.