Pullman strike

Pullman strike

Pullman strike, in U.S. history, an important labor dispute. On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago struck to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. They sought support from their union, the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, and on June 26 the ARU called a boycott of all Pullman railway cars. Within days, 50,000 rail workers complied and railroad traffic out of Chicago came to a halt. When the railroad owners asked the federal government to intervene, Attorney General Richard Olney, a director of the Burlington and Santa Fe railroads, obtained (July 2) a court injunction. On July 4, President Cleveland dispatched troops to Chicago. Much rioting and bloodshed ensued, but the government's actions broke the strike and the boycott soon collapsed. Debs and three other union officials were jailed for disobeying the injunction.

See A. Lindsey, The Pullman Strike (1942, repr. 1964); W. Cawardine, The Pullman Strike (1973).

The Pullman Strike occurred when 3,000 Pullman Palace Car Company workers reacted to a 25% wage cut by going on a wildcat strike in Illinois on May 11, 1894, bringing traffic west of Chicago to a halt.

Paternalism in Company Town

The owner of the company, George Pullman was a "welfare capitalist." Firmly believing that labor unrest was caused by the unavailability of decent pay and living conditions, he paid unprecedented wages and built a company town by Lake Calumet called Pullman in what is now the southern part of the city. Instead of living in utilitarian tenements as did many other industrial workers of the day, Pullman workers lived in attractive company-owned houses, complete with indoor plumbing, gas, and sewer systems (all considered luxuries at this time by the general public). All of this within a beautifully landscaped town, with free education through eighth grade, and a free public library (stocked with an initial gift of 5,000 volumes of Pullman's own, personal library.)

While the company town did make a high-quality life possible, the system of interrelated corporations that owned and operated it all presupposed that workers would live within their means and practice basic budgetary prudence. Some workers did find themselves locked into a kind of "debt slavery" (one form of truck system), owing more than they earned to the company stores and to the independent sister company that owned and operated the town of Pullman. Money owed was automatically deducted from workers' paychecks, and a worker who had overspent himself might never see his earnings at all.

It is likely that the paternalism practiced in the town also contributed to the workers’ unrest and subsequent strike. Pullman ruled the town like a feudal baron. He prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings or open discussion. His inspectors regularly entered homes to inspect for cleanliness and could terminate leases on ten days notice. The church stood empty since no approved denomination would pay rent and no other congregation was allowed. Private charitable organizations were prohibited. One of the workers declared,

We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman Hell.

The Strike

During the economic panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demands for their train cars plummeted and the company's revenue dropped. A delegation of workers complained that the corporation that operated the town of Pullman didn't decrease rents, but Pullman "loftily declined to talk with them."

Many of the workers were already members of the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott in which union members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. The strike effectively shut down production in the Pullman factories and led to a lockout. Railroad workers across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars (and subsequently Wagner Palace cars) onto trains. The ARU declared that if switchmen were disciplined for the boycott, the entire ARU would strike in sympathy.

The boycott was launched on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars. Adding fuel to the fire the railroad companies began hiring replacement workers (that is, strikebreakers), which only increased hostilities. Many African Americans, fearful that the racism expressed by the American Railway Union would lock them out of another labor market crossed the picket line to break the strike, adding a racially charged tone to the conflict.

On June 29, 1894, Debs hosted a peaceful gathering to obtain support for the strike from fellow railroad workers at Blue Island, Illinois. Afterward groups within the crowd became enraged and set fire to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive. Elsewhere in the United States, sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking strikebreakers. This increased national attention to the matter and fueled the demand for federal action.

The railroads were able to get Edwin Walker, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, appointed as a special federal attorney with responsibility for dealing with the strike. Walker obtained an injunction barring union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers cease their activities or face being fired. Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction, and federal troops were called into action.

The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail, ignored a federal injunction and represented a threat to public safety. The arrival of the military led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage (about $6,800,000 adjusted for inflation to 2007).


Clarence Darrow agreed to represent Debs and, after a "brilliant" defense, may have been "robbed of a victory" due to the U.S. attorney dropping the prosecution of a charge of conspiracy to obstruct the mail after a juror's illness. Debs was then tried for, and eventually found guilty of violating the court injunction, and was sent to prison for six months.

At the time of his arrest, Debs was not a Socialist. However, during his time in prison, he read the works of Karl Marx. After his release in 1895, he became the leading Socialist figure in America. He ran for President for the first of five times in 1900.

A national commission formed to study causes of the 1894 strike found Pullman's paternalism partly to blame and Pullman's company town to be "un-American." In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was annexed to Chicago.

Pullman thereafter remained unpopular with labour, and when he died in 1897, he was buried in Graceland Cemetery at night in a lead-lined coffin within an elaborately reinforced steel-and-concrete vault. Several tons of cement were poured to prevent his body from being exhumed and desecrated by labor activists.

See also


Further reading

  • Smith, Carl (1995). Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

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