The Pullman Strike
The Pullman Strike
Businessman. George Mortimer Pullman, the son of a farmer and carpenter born in upstate New York in 1831, was one of the most significant figures in American business history. He left school at age fourteen, working in a general store, and then as a carpenter. He moved to Chicago in 1859, where he found work in the burgeoning city. After a brief stint in Colorado he returned to Chicago in 1863 to begin building a new kind of sleeping car for railway travel, which he dubbed the “Pioneer.” With a shrewd eye for promotion, Pullman lent his car to the federal government to bear the body of President Abraham Lincoln to Illinois for his funeral in 1865, a gimmick that attracted national publicity. Over the next several years he persuaded several railroads to accept his coaches (which were slightly wider than other railroad cars), and in 1867 he incorporated the Pullman Palace Car Company. Two years later Pullman expanded his industrial plant in the area of Lake Calumet, south of Chicago. In 1875 he added parlor cars to the company’s line of offerings.
Product. For those who could afford to ride in them, Pullman’s cars lent an air of gentility to railway travel. Curtains and carpets surrounded middle- and upper-class passengers with the comforts of home. “We know now that men will not climb in between the sheets of a Pullman sleeping-car bed with their boots on,” a spokesman wrote in one of the company’s promotional booklets, “and that they will not regard sleeping-car carpets and upholstery in the light of convenient cuspidors.” The product was thus distinctly suited to its times, adapting upper-class amenities to the new railway-driven economy.
Town. To house workers at his thriving industrial plant, Pullman began construction of the town of Pullman in 1880. The businessman surveyed the land himself, working with landscape architect Nathan Barrett Berman to fashion a grid pattern wrapped around the factory and a town square. Other corporate/public buildings included a hotel, the Greenstone Church, an arcade market, a department store and shopping center for the workers, a library, and a savings bank—ali of them owned by the company. The workers lived in brick row houses; larger houses closer to the center of town were reserved for engineers and foremen. The town was meant to be a model community, free of the slums, crime, and labor agitation that, in Pullman’s view, were polluting the new industrial society. Plays at the Arcade Theater in Pullman were carefully chosen for moral influence by Pullman or his representatives. The town had no saloons, gambling houses, brothels, or dance halls—none of those establishments that, in regular working-class neighborhoods, undergirded working-class culture and entertainment. (Pullman considered these to be “baneful influences,” and workers wanting a drink or a visit to a brothel had to go the neighboring town, Roseland.) Also there were no police stations, courts, or orphanages in Pullman.
Model Community. Pullman’s vision of a benevolent, paternalistic industrial community gripped the imagination of middle-class America. The town became a popular sightseeing excursion for tourists visiting Chicago. In 1893, the year of the Columbian Exposition, some ten thousand foreign visitors made the trip, as did thousands of Americans. Pullman himself guided some of the tours of his industrial fiefdom. Much like Andrew Carnegie, Pullman considered the industrialist to be a social engineer. “The principle of my life,” he declared, “has been that ali wealth beyond one’s need is held in trust for the benefit of ali.” His town and factory were meant to manifest this paternalistic vision.
Strike. Pullman’s vision of benevolent industrial paternalism fell apart, however, with the advent of the 1893 depression. In 1894 he refused to lower rents despite wage cuts at his factory. Workers resolved to strike and put their grievances before the American Railway Union (ARU), which, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, was then emerging as a leader in the industrial union movement. Earlier in the year the ARU had won a strike against the Great Northern Railroad, and it promptly agreed to support the Pullman workers, calling for a nationwide strike and a boycott of Pullman’s railroad cars and any trains pulling them. Rail traffic across the nation ground to a halt.
National Response. In the ensuing conflict the ARU set up command and control in a central committee headquartered in Chicago; pitted against the workers was the railroads’ counterpart in the General Managers’ Association, an organization that coordinated the twenty-six railroads arrayed against the union. Some 260,000 workers joined the strike, about half of them directly affiliated with the union. The conservative press portrayed Debs as a tyrant and the strike as a dangerous “insurrection.” It looked even more like one when railroad managers got the federal and state governments to weigh in on their side. By attaching mail cars to trains carrying Pullman cars, the railroads gave Atty. Gen. Richard C. Olney the opportunity to call out the U.S. Army by arguing that the strike was interfering with the mail system. When troops marched into Chicago on 4 Jury, they confronted massed strikers in a melee that killed thirteen and wounded more than fifty. Resistance spread outward from Chicago; skirmishes between strikers and federal troops and state militia flared in twenty-six states, stretching from Maine to California. Casualties climbed to thirty-four. But by mid July the momentum behind the strike had collapsed. ARU leaders, including Debs, were arrested and charged with civil contempt. Critically, Samuel Gompers and the AFL leadership decided not to support the general strike and called on workers to return to their jobs.
End of Pullman. Despite crushing the strike, Pullman did not manage to sustain his vision of a model industrial community. Pullman died in 1897, and the following year a ruling by the Supreme Court of Illinois forced the company to sell the town property. Pullman would never be the same. Within a handful of years the Arcade Theater closed, middle-class managers moved out of town, and in their wake saloons appeared.
James Gilbert, Perfect Cities: Chicago’s Utopias of 1893 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991);
Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and a Great Labor Upheaval (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942).