The Pullman Strike of 1894
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
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 (http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/jennie.html).
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
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 (http://1912.history.ohio-state.edu/pullman.htm).
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 (http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/pullpar.html).
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" (http://1912.history.ohio-state.edu/pullman.htm).
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.
Altman, L. (1994).
The Pullman Strike of 1894: Turning Point for American Labor. Brookfield,
Brisben, J. (1994,
May/June). The Pullman Strike: Looking Back 100 Years Later
September 6, 2000, from the World Wide Web: http://metalab.unc.edu/spc/articles/5.94.html
Curtis, J. (1894).
Address to 1894 Convention Of American Railway Union [Article].
October 6, 2000, from the World Wide Web: http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/jennie.html
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.).
The Illinois Labor History
Society. The Parable of Pullman [Article]. Retrieved
October 6, 2000, from the
World Wide Web: http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/pullpar.html
Lindsey, A. (1942).
The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great
Upheaval. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[Article]. Retrieved September 6, 2000, from the World Wide Web:
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