THE PULLMAN STRIKE
[Click on graphics for additional information.]
The Pullman Strike of 1894 was the first national strike in United States
history. Before coming to an end, it involved over 150,000 persons and
twenty-seven states and territories and would paralyze the nations railway
system. The entire rail labor force of the nation would walk away from
their jobs. In supporting the capital side of this strike President Cleveland
for the first time in the Nation's history would send in federal troops,
who would fire on and kill United States Citizens, against the wishes of
the states. The federal courts of the nation would outlaw striking by the
passing of the Omnibus indictment. This blow to unionized labor would not
be struck down until the passing of the Wagner act in 1935. This all began
in the little town of Pullman, Illinois, just south of Chicago.
Pullman Palace Car Company was famed for its sleeper and luxury railcars
that it manufactured. One of these manufacturing locations was in Pullman,
Illinois. George M. Pullman founded the town of Pullman as a place where
his workers could live. This town was conceived and designed on the premise
of being a model town for his workers, with every aspect complete
including parks and a library. The problem arose when after the panic of
1893 the workers of Pullman received several wage cuts that on the average
added up to twenty-five percent. These cuts were bad in themselves, but
when coupled with Pullman's actions of not lowering the rents for his company
owned homes in Pullman, the labor began to unite. From the outside, Pullman
appeared to be a model town, and guided tours were given to impress outsiders.
The town however was not model; the homes on the outskirts of town were
shabbily built -- some without any kind of plumbing. The rent for these houses
was also about twenty-five percent higher than normal for the area. In
addition, in order to work for Pullman, one had to live in his houses.
The workers formed a committee and on May 7 went to Pullman to ask
to have the rent lowered. On May 7 and 9, they were flatly refused.
Three of the committee members were then terminated. This caused the workers
to declare that they were going to strike, and on May 10, 1894 they walked
off of their jobs. Then on May 11, 1894 the Pullman Plant closed.
The strike went peacefully, but after several weeks the Pullman management
had not changed its position and the strikers were desperate for aid. During
the strike, the American Railway Union had convened in Chicago because
it was the rail center of the United States. The recently formed American
Railway Union had 465 local unions and claimed the memberships of 150,000
workers. Since the Pullman workers were an affiliated union on strike
in Chicago, the ARU offered to send arbitrators for the Pullman cause. The
Pullman workers refused this aid. Even so the ARU under the leadership
of Eugene Debs decided to stop handling Pullman cars on June 26, if the
Pullman Union would not agree to arbitration. The stage was set for the
largest strike in the nation's history.
On June 26, the ARU switchmen started to refuse to switch trains with Pullman
cars. In response, the General Managers Association began to fire the switchmen
for not handling the cars. The strike and boycott rapidly expanded, paralyzing
the Chicago rail yards and most of the twenty-four rail lines in the city.
On July 2 a federal injunction was issued against the leaders of the ARU.
This Omnibus Indictment prevented ARU leaders from "...compelling or inducing
by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees
to refuse or fail to perform duties..."(U.S. Strike Commission Report pp.
179). This injunction was based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate
Commerce Act and was issued by federal judges Peter S. Grosscup and William
A. Woods under the direction of Attorney General Richard Olney. The injunction
prevented the ARU leadership from communicating with their subordinates
and chaos began to reign.
Governor Altgeld of Illinois had been hesitant to employ the state militia
to put down the strike instead relying on the local authorities to handle
the situation. However, he said he would use the National Guard to protect
property. Above all Governor Altgeld did not want federal troops to intervene.
However, the issuing of this federal injunction and the fact that mail-trains
might be delayed caused President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops
from Fort Sheridan. On July 3, Federal troops entered Chicago against Governor
Altgeld's repeated protests. Governor Altgeld protested by writing President
Cleveland on July 5, saying
"...surely the facts have not been correctly presented to you in this case,
or you would not
have taken the step, for it seems to me, unjustifiable. Waiving all questions
of courtesy I
will say that the State of Illinois is not only able to take care of itself,
but it stands ready to
furnish the Federal Government any assistance it may need else where..."
(Altgeld pp. 656)
Despite these repeated protests by Governor Altgeld, President Cleveland
continued to send in federal troops.
The reaction of the strikers to the appearance of the troops was that of
outrage. What had been a basically peaceful strike turned into complete
mayhem. The mayhem began on July 4, with mobs of people setting off fireworks
and tipping over rail cars. The workers started to tip railcars and build
blockades in reaction to the presence of the federal troops. In addition
to this, there was additional level of chaos caused by the ARU leaders'
inability to communicate with the strikers because of the federal indictments.
The rioting grew and spread then on July 7, a large fire consumed seven
buildings at the World's Colombian Exposition in Jackson Park. This burning
and rioting came to a zenith on July 6, when fires caused by some 6,000
rioters destroyed 700 railcars and caused $340,000 of damages in the South
Chicago Panhandle yards.
At this time in the Chicago vicinity, there were 6,000 federal and state
troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshals. However, all this manpower
could not prevent the violence from peaking when on July 7, national guardsmen
after being assaulted, fired into the crowd killing at least four (possibly
up to thirty) and wounding at least twenty. The killing continued when
two more people were killed by troops in Spring Valley, Illinois. All this
violence started to cause the strike to ebb and on that same day Eugene
Debs and four other ARU leaders were arrested for violating the indictment.
These officers were later released on $10,000 bond. The strike was failing
rapidly, so the ARU tried to enlist the aid of the AFL in the form of sympathetic
strikes. When this was refused the ARU attempted to abandon the strike,
on the grounds that workers would be rehired without prejudice except were
convicted of crimes however, this offer was refused by the General Managers'
Association. The strike continued to dwindle, and trains began to move
with increased frequency. The strike became untenable for the workers and
on August 2 the Pullman works reopened.
This strike was truly monumental if some of the figures for lost revenues
are looked at. The railroads alone lost an estimated $685,308 in expenses
incurred during the strike. However, the railroads lost even more in revenue
an estimated $4,672,916 [$120,000,000 in 2009 values]. In addition, 100,000 striking employees lost wages
of an estimated $1,389,143. These costs are just the localized effects
of the paralyzation of the nation's rail center and do not include the
far ranging financial effects. The manpower used to break the strike was
also immense. The total forces of the strikebreakers both government and
private were: 1,936 federal troops, 4,000 national guardsmen, about 5,000
extra deputy marshals, 250 extra deputy sheriffs, and the 3,000 policemen
in Chicago for a total of 14,186 strikebreakers. In addition to these figures
there were also twelve people shot and killed, and 71 people who were arrested
and sentenced on the federal indictment. This strike had other far ranging
consequences. The federal government took an unprecedented step in using
indictments to make any form of a strike essentially illegal and supported
this action by deploying federal troops against the will of the states.
The results of the Pullman Strike were both enormous and inconsequential.
They were enormous because the strike showed the power of unified national
unions. At the same time the strike showed the willingness of the federal
government to intervene and support the capitalists against unified labor.
The results were inconsequential because for all of the unified effort
of the unions the workers did not get their rents lowered.
There is additional information available for those individuals pictured above. Click on
their portraits to access these materials.
Go to Eugene Victor Debs Biography
Eugene V. Debs Official Site
or to Eugene V. Debs Papers, Indiana Historical Society
or Pullman Images, US History Image Collection, Marchand Collection, UC Davis
This text was produced by Keith
Ladd with the help of Greg Rickman.
Last updated on March 3, 1998 | Links corrected November 03, 2009
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