The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a milestone in American labor history, as the widespread strike by workers was put down by the federal government.
President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the strike and dozens were killed in violent clashes.
The strike was an intensely bitter battle between workers and company management, as well as between two major characters, George Pullman, owner of company making railroad passenger cars, and Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union.
The significance of the Pullman Strike was enormous. The strike affected much of the country, and it had great influence on public opinion on the rights of workers, the role of management, and the role of government in mediating labor unrest.
George M. Pullman, Businessman and Inventor of the Pullman Car
George M. Pullman was born in 1831 in upstate New York, the son of a carpenter. He learned carpentry himself, and moved to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1850s. During the Civil War he began building a new kind of railroad passenger car, which had berths for passengers to sleep.
Pullman's cars became popular with the railroads, and in 1867 he formed the Pullman Palace Car Company.
Pullman's Idea for a Planned Community for Workers
In the early 1880s, as his company prospered and his factories grew, George Pullman began planning a town to house his workers. The community of Pullman, Illinois, was created according to his vision on the prairie on the outskirts of Chicago.
In the new town of Pullman, a grid of streets surrounded the factory. There were row houses for workers, and foremen and engineers lived in larger houses. The town also had banks, a hotel, and a church. All were owned by Pullman's company.
A theater in the town put on plays, but they had to be productions that met moral standards set by George Pullman.
The emphasis on morality was pervasive, as Pullman wanted to create an environment vastly different from the rough urban neighborhoods that he viewed as a major problem in America's rapidly industrializing society.
Saloons, dance halls, and other establishments that would have been frequented by working class Americans of the time were not allowed within the city limits of Pullman. And it was widely believed that company spies kept a watchful eye on the workers during their hours off the job.
Pullman Cut Wages While Not Reducing Rents Paid By Workers
George Pullman's vision of a paternalistic community organized around a factory fascinated the American public for a time. And when Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition, the World's Fair of 1893, international visitors flocked to see the model town of Pullman.
Things changed dramatically with the Panic of 1893, a severe financial depression that affected the American economy. Pullman cut the wages of workers by one-third, but he refused to lower the rents in the company housing.
In response, the American Railway Union, the largest American union at the time, with 150,000 members, took action. The local branches of the union called for a strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company complex.
The Pullman Strike Spread Nationwide
Outraged by the strike at his factory, Pullman closed the plant, determined to wait out the workers. The A.R.U. members called on the national membership to get involved. The union's national convention voted to refuse to work on any train in the country that had a Pullman car, which brought the nation's passenger rail service to a standstill.
The American Railway Union managed to get about 260,000 workers nationwide to join in the boycott. And the leader of the A.R.U., Eugene V. Debs, was at times portrayed in the press as a dangerous radical leading an insurrection against the American way of life.
The U.S. Government Crushed the Pullman Strike
The U.S. attorney general, Richard Olney, became determined to crush the strike. On July 2, 1894 the federal government got an injunction in federal court which ordered an end to the strike.
President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to enforce the court ruling. When they arrived on July 4, 1894, riots broke out in Chicago and 26 civilians were killed. A railroad yard was burned.
On July 10, 1894 Eugene V. Debs was arrested. He was charged with violating the court injunction, and was eventually sentenced to six months in federal prison. While in prison, Debs read the works of Karl Marx and became a committed radical, which he had not been previously.
Significance of the 1894 Pullman Strike
The use of federal troops to put down a strike was a milestone, as was the use of the federal courts to curtail union activity. In the 1890s the threat of more violence inhibited union activity, and companies and government entities relied on the courts to suppress strikes.
As for George Pullman, the strike and the violent reaction to it forever diminished his reputation. He died of a heart attack on October 18, 1897.
He was buried in a Chicago cemetery, and tons of concrete were poured over his grave. Public opinion had turned against him to such a degree that it was believed Chicago residents might desecrate his body.