Municipal Government

The Pullman Strike of 1894

July 8, 2016 
By Bill Hohlfeld
July Labor History

Chicago, Ill. Today, on Forestburgh Avenue, in Chicago there is a historic site open to the public that is worth seeing. It is the famous, or infamous (depending on your point of view) company town erected and operated by George Mortimer Pullman, owner and CEO of the Pullman Palace Car Company.

At its inception in 1889, it was considered a model town for what was then known as “the laboring classes,” but inevitably the peasants would rise up and defy what was in reality, the lord of the manor. For in 1893, as is often the case in a boom and bust economy, America suffered an economic downturn, and Mr. Pullman was in no way willing to share in the suffering.

That economic downturn had its ripple effect. Travel for both pleasure and business slowed dramatically. Railroads were less prosperous, and the demand for sleeping cars, Pullman’s cash cow, became a shadow of what it had previously been. The results were predictable. In one devastating blow, Pullman laid off more than three thousand of his production workers in the summer of 1893. As demand slowly began to creep up, Pullman rehired many of the workers back by the spring of 1894, but at significantly lower wage rates. The workers, depending
upon their job description, were forced to take pay cuts of anywhere from 25 to 33 percent. What made this situation not only harsh, but intolerable, is that Mr. Pullman did not lower the rent on his “model homes” nor did he lower any of the other various fees associated with living in his town, such as profit earning utilities like gas and water. (There was even a fee to use the library, as Pullman had provided the books that stocked the shelves and did not believe in charity!)

That economic downturn had its ripple effect. Travel for both pleasure and business slowed dramatically. Railroads were less prosperous, and the demand for sleeping cars, Pullman’s cash cow, became a shadow of what it had previously been. The results were predictable. In one devastating blow, Pullman laid off more than three thousand of his production workers in the summer of 1893. As demand slowly began to creep up, Pullman rehired many of the workers back by the spring of 1894, but at significantly lower wage rates. The workers, depending
upon their job description, were forced to take pay cuts of anywhere from 25 to 33 percent. What made this situation not only harsh, but intolerable, is that Mr. Pullman did not lower the rent on his “model homes” nor did he lower any of the other various fees associated with living in his town, such as profit earning utilities like gas and water. (There was even a fee to use the library, as Pullman had provided the books that stocked the shelves and did not believe in charity!)

On May 9 th , a workers’ committee met with Pullman and his vice-president Thomas Wickes to submit their grievances, which included not only cuts in pay, but other Pullman Town restrictions such as imposed curfews and a ban on drinking beer. While both Pullman and Wickes maintained a pleasant, if not conciliatory, demeanor during the meeting, reassuring the workers that their comments would be taken under advisement, the next day saw the the firing of three members of the grievance committee and sent a very different message.

A strike ensued, and the striking Pullman car workers were welcomed into the ranks of the newly formed American Railway Union of Eugene V. Debs. The Pullman workers were hopeful as Debs’s nascent union had just waged a successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad, winning a pay hike and several other concessions. Within two days of the meeting with Pullman 90% of his thirty-eight hundred workers were proud but striking members of the ARU.

In solidarity with their new members, railroad workers throughout the country refused to handle any trains containing Pullman cars. This labor action took place in twenty-seven states, involved one hundred thousand workers, and virtually paralyzed the railroads from Chicago to San Francisco. Ice melted and vegetables rotted in railroad cars on trains that workers refused to service.

In solidarity with their new members, railroad workers throughout the country refused to handle any trains containing Pullman cars. This labor action took place in twenty-seven states, involved one hundred thousand workers, and virtually paralyzed the railroads from Chicago to San Francisco. Ice melted and vegetables rotted in railroad cars on trains that workers refused to service.

In a sly and legalistic maneuver, President Grover Cleveland and his Attorney General, Richard Olney conspired with the railroads to have U. S. Mail cars attached to all the same trains that carried the controversial Pullmans. This was done in spite of the assurances by Debs and his union that any train designated a mail train would be facilitated in its passage. The plan worked. Mail trains were, in fact, delayed, creating an excuse to dispatch federal troops. In addition, federal marshals were given the right to hire “special deputies” who were, more often than not, little more than gun thugs who were more than willing to earn some ready cash as strike breakers.

Violence erupted and the strike was brutally crushed. Thirty-four members of the American Railway Union payed the ultimate price, and union leader, Eugene V. Debs being arrested on July 10 th , and eventually sent to prison to serve a six month term. While he awaited sentencing, he told his parents in a letter, “If I happen to go to jail don’t worry. I would rather be a man in prison than a free poltroon Thousands of the world’s best and noblest have occupied prison cells. After all, I shall go into history right.”

Indeed, Pullman would grow in popularity over the years, eventually becoming a presidential candidate and receiving at one point, nearly 4% of the popular vote. Pullman and his town on the other hand, were excoriated by one contemporary Chicago cleric, the Reverend William H. Carwardine characterizing them as “an affront to God.”

July 8, 2016

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