The Pullman Strike
The Pullman Strike was a disturbing event in Illinois history. It occurred because of the way George Mortimer Pullman, founder and president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, treated his workers. Organized in 1867, the company manufactured sleeping cars and operated them under contract to the railroads.
Pullman created Pullman City to house his employees. It was on a three-thousand-acre tract located south of Chicago in the area of 114th Street and Cottage Grove. His workers were required to live in Pullman City. They were also expected to accept cuts in pay and not criticize workloads. Pullman charged money for use of the library. Clergy had to pay rent to use the church. "He wasn't a man to let you pray for free," it was claimed in The Call, a socialist newspaper.
In 1893, because of a depression, factory wages at the company fell about twenty-five percent, but the rents George Pullman charged did not decrease. If a Pullman worker went into debt, it was taken from his paycheck.
On May 11,1894, three thousand Pullman workers went on a "wildcat" strike, that is, without authorization of their union. Many of the strikers belonged to the American Railroad Union (ARU) founded by Eugene V. Debs. Debs, who was from Indiana, had moved to Chicago where he became a railroad fireman. He became aware of the working conditions of his fellow laborers. He saw men working for low wages, some of whom were injured or killed because of unsafe equipment. He was determined to make things better.
On June 26, 1894, some ARU members refused to allow any train with a Pullman car to move, except those with mail cars. Debs did not want federal troops to get involved, and he knew that if the U.S. mail was tampered with, the troops would be there immediately.
The railroads had formed an organization called the General Managers Association. They announced that no one could tell them whom to hire, whom to fire, or how they should pay their workers. The twenty-four railroads that were part of the General Managers Association immediately tried to end the strike. They announced that any switchman who refused to move rail cars would be fired.
Debs's union announced that if a switchman was fired because he refused to move Pullman cars all the union members would walk off the job. By June 29, fifty thousand men had quit their jobs. Crowds of people who supported the strike began stopping trains. Soon there was no movement on the rails west of Chicago. In some places, fights broke out.
In order to break the strike, the railroads needed help from federal troops. Getting their assistance, however, was a difficult task. The railroads could
only get help from federal troops if the President agreed. President Grover Cleveland said that he would only send the aid of government troops if a governor requested them.
The governor of Illinois was John P. Altgeld. He did not want to request troops because he believed that workers should have the same rights as their bosses. These ideas made the General Managers Association uneasy. The railroad managers started flooding the newspapers with stories that made Debs's American Railroad Union seem like a violent and lawless gang and portrayed Eugene Debs as a radical. They claimed that unrest had always ended in violence and threatened that this strike would be the same. The railroads began sending people to work on railroads as strike breakers or scabs.
Attorney General Richard Olney supported the General Managers Association because he believed that the railroads had the right to do things their way, and if the workers disagreed with the treatment they were receiving, they could quit. On June 29, 1894, Debs went to Blue Island and asked the railroad workers there if they would support the strike. The railroad workers there felt they were being discriminated against. Angry railroad workers in Blue Island began destroying the yards and burning anything that was flammable. Attorney General Olney requested President Cleveland to send federal troops into Chicago to break the strike.
On July 2, 1894, Olney obtained an injunction from a federal court saying that the strike was illegal. When the strikers did not return to work the next day, President Cleveland sent federal troops into Chicago. This enraged strikers, and rioters began stopping trains, smashing switches, and, again, setting fire to anything that would burn. On July 7, another mob stopped soldiers escorting a train through the downtown Chicago area. Many people were killed or wounded from bullets.
On July 10, 1894, Debs and three other union leaders were arrested for interferring with U.S. mail. They were released within a few hours, but Debs realized that continuing the strike would be a lost cause because of the federal troops.
Most railroad workers resumed their old jobs and received the same wages as before. Some workers were put on a blacklist, which meant that no railroad in the United States was allowed to hire them. On July 17, 1894, Debs was sent back to jail and served a term of six months in jail. The union he had created no longer existed when he got out of jail.
The Pullman Strike was important because it was the first time a federal injunction had ever been used to break up a strike. George Pullman was no longer regarded as an enlightened employer who took care of his workers, but as a greedy and intolerant man. He was offended by his workers' ingratitude. Pullman worried that people would try to steal what was his from him. Shortly before he died in 1897, he requested that his grave be lined in concrete to keep looters from robbing him.—[From Linda Jacobs Altman, The Pullman Strike of 1894; Stephen Longstreet, Chicago, 1860-1919; Albert L. McCready, Railroads in the Days of Steam.]
This artist's rendering depicts the clash between striking Pullman workers and federal troops.