Monday, May 11, 2009

Moments in American Labor History: Pullman Strike

The Panic of 1893 hit the nation hard. The worst economic crisis in the nation's history to that time, people were thrown out of work across the country. Companies, unwilling to pay any semblance of a living wage, cut jobs and wages to keep profits as high as possible. Among the worst of these corporations was the Pullman Palace Car Company.

115 years ago today, on May 11, 1894, 3000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest a 30% wage cut. This was no ordinary strike however. George Pullman, company founder and owner, made a fortune off of sleeper cars for the nation's travellers. He was one of the nation's wealthiest men. He also was vehemently anti-union. Pullman had his own company town within the boundaries of Chicago. Many saw it as a model town, but of course, Pullman controlled everything, from the prices at the stores to the schools to the rent. When Pullman put in that 30% wage cut, he didn't cut rent prices at all. Moreover, managers and administrators saw their wages rise at the same time. If the people couldn't pay their rent, they'd be kicked out of their homes. This infuriated them and put the lie to Pullman's self-created paternalistic image. Pullman wanted to show that the interests of labor and management were the same, but of course that only worked for Pullman when management made every decision and labor docilely followed.

The rail workers were pretty interested in unionism before this. In fact, some of America's most intense strikes to this date came from rail workers. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene Debs, supported the Pullman Strike by refusing to operate Pullman Cars. Thus the small strike of one company expanded into something that could shut down the nation's economy. By June 26, 120,000 workers from 27 states around the country were on strike. The nation's rail system was paralyzed.

As was typical of the time, the government was actively hostile to organized labor. On June 29, some railroad workers, angry about their terrible conditions, rioted. Although Illinois Governor John Altgeld opposed federal intervention, even after this incident, the Pullman Company was powerful. They had a friend in Attorney General Richard Olney. Olney convinced President Grover Cleveland to send in the U.S. military to crush the strike. He claimed the strikers were impeding the delivery of the mail, but the real issue was the whole idea of organized labor. Debs was arrested, the ARU destroyed, and leading workers blacklisted. Although government had acted against strikes before, this was the first time a federal injunction was used to crush a labor action. 13 strikers were killed and 57 wounded.

In the aftermath of the strike, the workers were desperate to eat. A committee wrote Governor Altgeld.

Kensington, Ill.,

August 17, 1894.

To His Excellency, the Governor of the State of Illinois:

We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving. Our places have been filled with workmen from all over the United States, brought here by the Pullman Company, and the surplus were turned away to walk the streets and starve also. There are over 1600 families here in destitution and want, and their condition is pitiful. We have exhausted all the means at our command to feed them, and we now make this appeal to you as a last resource. Trusting that God will influence you in our behalf and that you will give this your prompt attention, we remain,

Yours in distress,





A sympathetic Altgeld wrote to Pullman, asking him to alleviate the problems:

August 19, 1894.

To George M. Pullman, President Pullman Palace Car Co., Chicago:

Sir:—I have received numerous reports to the effect that there is great distress at Pullman. To-day I received a formal appeal as Governor from a committee of the Pullman people for aid. They state that sixteen hundred families including women and children, are starving; that they cannot get work and have not the means to go elsewhere; that your company has brought men from all over the United States to fill their places. Now these people live in your town and were your employees. Some of them worked for your company for many years. They must be people of industry and character or you would not have kept them. Many of them have practically given their lives to you. It is claimed they struck because after years of toil their loaves were so reduced that their children went hungry. Assuming that they were wrong and foolish, they had yet served you long and well and you must feel some interest in them. They do not stand on the same footing with you, so that much must be overlooked. The State of Illinois has not the least desire to meddle in the affairs of your company, but it cannot allow a whole community within its borders to perish of hunger. The local overseer of the poor has been appealed to, but there is a limit to what he can do. I cannot help them very much at present. So unless relief comes from some other source I shall either have to call an extra session of the Legislature to make special appropriations, or else issue an appeal to the humane people of the State to give bread to your recent employees. It seems to me that you would prefer to relieve the situation yourself, especially as it has just cost the State upwards of fifty thousand dollars to protect your property, and both the State and the public have suffered enormous loss and expense on account of disturbances that grew out of trouble between your company and its workmen. I am going to Chicago to-night to make a personal investigation before taking any official action. I will be at my office in the Unity block at 10 a.m. to-morrow, and shall be glad to hear from you if you care to make any reply.

JOHN P. ALTGELD, Governor.

Pullman blamed the workers for their own problems and did nothing.

In desperation, Altgeld tried one more appeal to Pullman, without success

Chicago, August 21st, 1894.

George M. Pullman, Esq., President Pullman Palace Car Company, City.

Sir:—I have your answer to my communication of this morning. I see by it that your company refuses to do anything toward relieving the situation at Pullman. It is true that Mr. Wickes offered to take me to Pullman and show me around. I told him that I had no objections to his going, but that I doubted the wisdom of my going under anybody’s wing. I was, however, met at the depot by two of your representatives, both able men, who accompanied me everywhere. I took pains to have them present in each case. I also called at your office and got what information they could give me there, so that your company was represented and heard, and no man there questioned either the condition of the extent of the suffering. If you will make the round I made, go into the houses of the people, meet them face to face and talk with them, you will be convinced that none of them had $1,300, or any other some of money only a few weeks ago.

I cannot enter into a discussion with you as to the merits of the controversy between you and your former workmen.

It is not my business to fix the moral responsibility in this case. There are nearly six thousand people suffering for the want of food—they were your employees—four-fifths of them women and children—some of these people have worked for you for more than twelve years. I assumed that even if they were wrong and had been foolish, you would not be willing to see them perish. I also assumed that as the State had just been to a large expense to protect your property you would not want to have the public shoulder the burden of relieving distress in your town.

As you refuse to do anything to relieve suffering in this case, I am compelled to appeal to the humanity of the people of Illinois to do so.

Respectfully yours,


The strike had some interesting consequences. First, public opinion turned against Pullman's paternalism. In 1898, the Pullman Company was forced to give up control of its town and turn it over to Chicago, which annexed it to the city. Pullman had died the year before. Before Pullman died, he had his grave lined in concrete because he was convinced that grave robbers would try to break in and steal the objects in his tomb.

Who replaced him as company president? Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the president. Lincoln was if anything even more anti-labor than Pullman. Lincoln did all he could to crush unions, particularly by the black sleeping car porters, who would spend the next decades fighting to organize. One might think that Lincoln was undermining his father's legacy, but I don't think so. Any examination of what Republicans thought about these issues in the 1850s and 60s shows that it were pretty consistent. While we certainly can't know what Abraham Lincoln would have thought, mainstream Republican thought (and Abe was certainly a mainstream Republican) was quite pro-big business and anti-organized labor from the very beginning. Just because slaves needed freedom didn't mean that Republicans would ensure economic equality.

The second consequence of note is that ARU head Eugene Debs was not a socialist in 1894. But he was sent to prison for his role in leading the strike. During his time in the clink, he was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx. He was converted to socialism by the time he left prison in 1895 and spent the rest of his life fighting for a socialist vision of America. He was the Socialist Party candidate for president five times, including from prison in 1920 where he was serving a sentence for publicly opposing American involvement in World War I.