Pullman Strike of 1894

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The last third of the nineteenth century was characterized by an atmosphere of bitter conflict between labor and management in the United States. One reason for this was that the economy had not performed very well since the early 1870s. Instead of a secure job, American workers were faced with a steady diet of financial panics and wage cuts. The most severe panic took place in 1893. The depression in 1893 deepened the unrest and dissatisfaction of the working class. In the winter of 18931894 the Pullman Palace Car Company, which built and repaired Pullman's railroad coaches, announced a 25 percent wage cut. Pullman was a "company town" surrounded by Chicago. Most of the Pullman workers lived in company-owned housing. Even though he cut the wages, George M. Pullman, the Chief Executive Officer of the company, refused to reduce the rent payments on the company housing.

The Pullman workers went on strike in early June 1894 and requested other unions to honor their picket lines. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, announced that its members would refuse to work on trains that included any Pullman railroad coaches. Within a few days the strike spread to the entire Western and Southern sections of the county. Twenty-seven states and territories were affected.

Another thing that contributed to labor unrest during this period was the perception that the government was not neutral in most disagreements between workers and management. In the ARU strike, for instance, rather than allowing labor and management to settle their disagreement by allowing the strike to take its course, many officials in the affected states called out the militia to repress the strike. The most notable exception to this was John Peter Altgeld, the first-term Democratic Governor of Illinois who had already shown his pro-union sympathies by pardoning three union organizers accused of instigating the Haymarket Riot in 1886. Altgelt refused to call out the Illinois militia to break the Pullman strike. He said that public order was not threatened by the strike and that he intended to do nothing to alter the disposition of forces on either side of the struggle.

The railroad company lawyers, with the support of President Grover Cleveland's Attorney General Richard Olney appealed to a federal court for an injunction against the strikers. They put forward two arguments. One was that the strike was "in restraint of trade" and therefore violated the Sherman Anti-trust Act. (This act was passed by Congress in 1890 and ruled illegal "every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restrain of trade or commerce. . ." The Sherman Anti-trust Act had been passed to break up monopolies rather than unions, but was invoked mainly against unions.) The second argument was that the strike interfered in the delivery of the federal mails. On July 3 the court ruled in favor of both charges and granted injunctions forbidding the ARU from continuing the strike. The injunction even prohibited Debs from communicating with the union's locals.

The ARU refused to honor the injunction and Debs was sentenced to six months in jail along with his fellow union officers. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the ARU. leaders when it declared the injunction issued against the union was a legitimate device for the protection of interstate commerce and the mails. For thirty years after the Debs case, the injunction was a powerful weapon in the hands of employers threatened with a strike. It would not be until the Norris La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 that labor gained some protection against strikebreaking injunctions issued by federal judges.

See also: American Railway Union, Eugene Victor Debs, Pullman Palace Car Company, Railroad Industry, Sherman Anti-Trust Act


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