The Pullman Strike of 1894


Andrea Rohde

Throughout American history, there have been numerous labor struggles.  Some naturally have been much more significant to the labor movement than others.  The Pullman Strike of 1894 is one such struggle that not only "helped split the movement, but also raised the doubts about the power of unskilled workers to win their demands" (Fossum, 1999, p. 33).  Overall, the Pullman Strike simply began as a revolt against unfair labor practices and quickly intensified into the national incident that one knows today, as seriously interfering with the U.S. railroad service.  It is for this reason that it is critical that individuals, seeking to further comprehend the history of the American labor movement, spend considerable time investigating this strike.  It is therefore the objective of this paper to not only inform readers of the strike in general, but also its repercussions on society.

Although it is well known that George Pullman was a mastermind when it came to building luxurious sleeping cars for the railroad industry, many do not know that he also was a successful developer of a model working community.  In fact, in 1881, he established a town in his name on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois.  As a result, Pullman became the "beloved benefactor of 12,000 happy individuals" (Altman, 1994, p. 32).  It is important to note that only three years later, it was these same individuals that considered "Pullman, both the man and the town, an ulcer on the body politic," as colorfully illustrated by Jennie Curtis, President of American Railway Union Local 269 (  One may ask, what dramatically changed that caused citizens to view George Pullman and his ideal community in such a negative manner?  Coupled with the Depression of 1893, it was the simple fact that he thought he knew what was best for all his employees, whether they agreed or not (Brisben 1994).

The Depression of 1893 had a devastating effect on the Pullman Palace Car Company.  Consequently, it was its loyal employees that were subject to cost-cutting measures in the coming year.  Not only was the overall labor force reduced from 5,500 to 3,300, but those that kept their positions with the company faced an average pay cut of twenty-five percent (  In addition, those that remained had to contend with a reduction in the total number of hours that they could work (Filippelli, 1990).  However, in consideration of these vast changes, no effort was made on behalf of George Pullman to reduce living expenses.  In fact, the situation was so bad that "one man worked 120 hours and got a check for a measly seven cents after the firm had deducted his rent and other miscellaneous expenses" (Altman, 1994, p. 32).  And so, in May 1894, Pullman, Illinois became the battle site of a bitter labor struggle due to such unfair labor and governing practices.

George Pullman, like many employers of his time, was unsympathetic to his employees and their inability to adequately support themselves and their families financially.  Nevertheless, he did "meet with a committee of worker representatives, but refused to restore wages or reduce rents and, shortly thereafter, terminated these representatives" (Filippelli, 1990, p. 426).  It became obvious then that change was not likely to occur, if appropriate action was not taken to rectify the current situation.  In the minds of the employees, appropriate action entailed walking off the job and effectively shutting down all Pullman operations, which they eventually decided to do on May 11, 1894.  In which case, local media was surprised by the path employees ultimately chose to pursue.  Not only was unemployment extremely high at this time, but George Pullman had always in the past been considered a model employer (Brisben 1994).  Employees though were unfazed by such factors and were determined instead to proceed in their fight against what they believed was oppression.

Employees now came to the realization that they needed additional help, if they were indeed going to accomplish their objectives.  Naturally, they turned to Eugene Debs, famous labor leader of this time and founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), for assistance.  Although many of the strikers were already ARU members, it was not possible to achieve success without the support of their fellow brothers.  Recognizing this fact, Debs "invited the people of Pullman to attend the first national convention of the ARU" (Altman, 1994, p. 38).  Right from the start, the union felt compelled to aid the people of Pullman through the usage of a boycott.  However, Debs emphasized caution and sought to arbitrate with Pullman officials.  All agreed and confirmed that a boycott would only be implemented in the case that all attempts had failed.  By June 15, 1894, it became apparent that Pullman officials would not meet under any circumstances with union representatives (Brisben 1994).  As a result, the ARU implemented a national boycott that would take effect at noon on June 26, 1894.  All members were simply ordered to "keep the mail moving and the Pullman cars sitting on the sidetrack" (Altman, 1994, p. 39).

The implementation of a national boycott further ignited the Pullman employees' zest to win.  Pullman officials began to worry and rightly so when the number of strikers increased dramatically within only three days.  This was due to the stipulation that stated that "if a worker was fired for honoring the boycott, every union man in that yard would walk off the job" (Altman, 1994, p. 40).  And so, by June 29, 1894, the number had increased to a total of 50,000 workers.  Pullman officials were dumb-founded and quickly realized that the strike would not end anytime soon, if action was not taken on their part.  In order to break the strike, Pullman officials, like many employers caught in this same predicament, decided to hire strikebreakers.  They acknowledged though that this would not sufficiently end all their problems.  Fortunately, they soon would not have to continue to worry about the situation because of federal intervention.

What originally began as a strike destined to be triumphant suddenly took a turn for the worse.  Although momentum was initially directed in the right manner, in a relatively short time, it became evident that this would not be the case for long.  In fact, after a visit to Blue Island, Illinois by Eugene Debs on June 29, 1894, it all seemed to unravel.  After a peaceful rally, in order to gain additional support for the boycott, strikers took matters in their own hands- "derailing a locomotive, destroying the yards and setting fire to anything that moved" (Altman, 1994, p. 44).  It was this inappropriate behavior that Attorney General Onley was hoping they would participate in, since the beginning.  This was because it gave Onley a basis in which he could champion the usage of an injunction against the strike.  Specifically, "an injunction is a court order requiring that certain actions be stopped" (Fossum, 1999, p. 583).  From the Attorney General's standpoint, the strike was not only unjust, but also extremely dangerous to the overall welfare of the nation.  After passionately presenting his case, Onley was finally granted the injunction he was seeking on
July 2, 1894.

The injunction was extremely successful in fracturing the efforts of strikers.  For it served two main purposes.  First, it allowed federal troops to be sent in to rectify the matter, if indeed mail delivery was being disrupted and second, it deprived strikers of their leadership (Filippelli 1990).  Completely disgusted and flustered by such an action, strikers became infuriated and simply did not think before they acted.  Ignoring Debs' early warning to keep the mail moving, an angry mob in Blue Island, Illinois decided that they on
July 3, 1894 would single-handedly illustrate their disapproval of federal intervention by "dragging baggage cars across the tracks; thereby, obstructing the passage of mail" (Filippelli, 1990, p. 428).  The next day,
July 4, 1894, as naturally expected, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to Chicago so that harmony could be reestablished in the community.  Most importantly, it ensured that mail delivery would not be interrupted.  However, strikers were not the only individuals upset by such a decision.  Both the governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld, and the mayor of Chicago, John. P. Hopkins, were vehemently opposed to the presence of federal troops in the area.

With the Chicagoland area in turmoil, the public began to shift their support in favor of crushing the strike.  With the public now on the side of the government, it was obvious that the strike would quickly end and not meet the objectives it set out to accomplish.  This especially was so when "Debs and three other union leaders were arrested on July 10, 1894 for interfering with the delivery of U.S. mail" (Altman, 1990, p. 50).  Although released shortly thereafter, it became blatantly apparent that the strike would end in a matter of days due to uncontrollable circumstances.  According to Filippelli (1990), the strike formally ended on
July 11, 1894 "with the single condition that employees be rehired at their former jobs" (p. 428).  Consequently, many employees sought to return to the same position they had held before the strike.  Only two-thirds of these individuals though ascertained employment, while others were either blacklisted or had traveled elsewhere for comparable positions (Filippelli 1990).  It is important to note that those that were re-hired by the Pullman Palace Car Company were required to sign "yellow-dog" contracts, a common practice among employers.  Specifically, "a yellow-dog contract is an agreement between an employee and an employer in which the employee indicates that (s)he is not a member of a labor union and that joining a labor union in the future will be sufficient grounds for dismissal" (Fossum, 1999, p. 589).  Unfortunately, these were not the only repercussions of the strike.

The Pullman Strike affected the overall welfare of the nation and its citizens, whether it was indeed recognized at the time or not.  And so, "it cannot be easily measured what the strike actually cost the nation in dollars, human misery, and class bitterness" (Lindsey, 1942, p. 335).  Nevertheless, the strike can be attributed to the eventual destruction of the American Railway Union, the defeat of President Cleveland's presidential renomination, and the vast amount of damages financially suffered by the railroads (  The Pullman Strike, in addition, emphasized the fact that there was an overall labor problem in the United States and "convinced Eugene Debs that the lives of American workers would never improve, unless they controlled governmental power through their strength of numbers in elections" (  Therefore, the campaign to replace capitalism with socialism was well underway.  As was the campaign to publicly humiliate George Pullman for his unjust practices and unreasonableness.

In summary, "George Pullman put his stamp on everything he touched- the sleeping car he designed, the company he founded, and the workers he tried to control" (Altman, 1994, p. 26).  Consequently, it was this control that led to the bitter labor struggle between him and his employees.  Although the Pullman Strike of 1894 did not achieve what it set out to accomplish in the way of fair treatment and adequate wages, it still remains as a classic reminder of the labor movement's desire to overcome its endless obstacles.


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Brisben, J.  (1994, May/June).  The Pullman Strike: Looking Back 100 Years Later [Article].  Retrieved
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Filippelli, R.  (Ed.).  (1990).  Labor Conflict in the United States: An Encyclopedia.  New York: Garland.

Fossum, J.  (1999). Labor Relations: Development, Structure, Process (7th ed.).  Boston: Irwin

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