Pullman Strike

views updated Jun 11 2018

Pullman Strike

United States 1894


The Pullman strike—also known as the Chicago strike, Pullman boycott, Debs Revolution, or the American Railway Union strike—was the most dramatic U.S. labor challenge to the power of capital in the 1890s. A local strike that expanded into a national boycott and strike, it grew to include outright class warfare. A turning point for the U.S. labor movement, especially the American Federation of Labor, it was also an economic and political turning point for the United States as a whole. While labor suffered a resounding defeat, the strike lent impetus to both radical labor currents and more moderate social reformers and led directly to what has become known as the Progressive Era of 1900 to 1920.


  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1880: Completion of Cologne Cathedral, begun 634 years earlier. With twin spires 515 feet (157 m) high, it is the tallest structure in the world and will remain so until 1889, when it is surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. (The previous record for the world's tallest structure lasted much longer—for about 4,430 years following the building of Cheops's Great Pyramid in c. 2550 B.C.)
  • 1885: Belgium's King Leopold II becomes sovereign of the so-called Congo Free State, which he will rule for a quarter-century virtually as his own private property. The region in Africa, given the name of Zaire in the 1970s (and Congo in 1997), becomes the site of staggering atrocities, including forced labor and genocide, at the hands of Leopold's minions.
  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and 60 more are injured.
  • 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, is convicted of treason. Dreyfus will later be cleared of all charges, but the Dreyfus case illustrates—and exacerbates—the increasingly virulent anti-Semitism that pervades France.
  • 1895: German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovers X-rays.
  • 1895: Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiè re show the world's first motion picture—Workers Leaving the Lumiè re Factory—at a caféin Paris.
  • 1895: Guglielmo Marconi pioneers wireless telegraphy, which in the next three decades will make possible the use of radio waves for commercial broadcasts and other applications.
  • 1895: German engineer Rudolf Diesel invents an engine capable of operating on a type of petroleum less highly refined, and therefore less costly, than gasoline.
  • 1898: Marie and Pierre Curie discover the radioactive elements radium and polonium.
  • 1901: U.S. President William McKinley is assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes president.
  • 1905: In the industrial Ruhr region in Germany, 200,000 miners go on strike.

Event and Its Context

The Pullman strike in Chicago, Illinois, was part of a nationwide crisis, generated by the social turbulence of the industrialization process that had been dramatically transforming the United States since the end of the Civil War. The rail strike of 1877 and the eight-hour uprising of 1886, culminating in the violence of the Haymarket affair in Chicago, had ended in defeats for the working class. However, these incidents were harbingers of deeper, better-organized, and more sustained challenges to the new industrial order that emerged in the final decade of the nineteenth century.

Intensifying Confrontation

The economic depression of the1890s (following similar downturns in the 1870s and 1880s) intensified the rise of radical populism among insurgent small farmers and many urban workers, while at the same time increasingly pushing industrialists to centralize and rationalize production to restore and enhance profit margins. In response, there was a growing trend among skilled workers to forge alliances with less skilled workers in more inclusive organizations. Industrial unions made their appearance among certain sectors of the working class: miners, garment workers, and railway workers, for example.

In the face of the growing power of business interests that many saw as profiteering "robber barons," increasing numbers of organized workers turned to more militant forms of collective action. For example, in 1877 Eugene V. Debs—then a prominent member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen—agreed with other railway labor leaders that the railroad corporation was "the architect of progress" and that the 1877 strikes represented "anarchy and revolution" to be rejected by the railway brotherhoods. By 1893, however, he was calling for "all railway employees to meet upon common ground and there unite forces for the protection of all" through the American Railway Union (ARU). He added that "such an army would be impregnable" to the assaults of the corporations that "trample on the divine declaration 'that all men are created equal.'" He had also come to believe that "the strike is the weapon of the oppressed, of men capable of appreciating justice and having the courage to resist wrong and contend for principle."

Debs's shifting outlook reflects a broader radicalization of the American working class. After completing an extensive speaking tour through the United States in 1887, Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx, commented on the prevalence of "unconscious socialism" among workers and others she encountered. She called the workers "grievously misled by capitalist papers and capitalist economists and preachers" about what socialism actually means, and therefore hostile to it, but in fact embracing its essential ideas and values. "[Many] persons, finding . . . that Socialism does not mean equal division of property, nor application of dynamite to capitalists, nor anarchy, have . . . declared, 'Well, if that is Socialism we are Socialists.'"

While relatively few American workers saw themselves as socialists, a significant number, particularly among organized workers, embraced a popular ideology of labor radicalism (what some historians have dubbed "producerism"). This radicalism blended the labor theory of value ("labor creates all wealth") and inclusive labor solidarity ("an injury to one is an injury to all") with a vision of American society being transformed into a new order of economic justice and social democracy. Outside of the working class, a growing number of intellectual, political, and cultural figures—including writer Henry Demarest Lloyd, social worker Jane Addams, lawyer Clarence Darrow, Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois, and others—were challenging the dominant social and economic orthodoxies of laissezfaire capitalism and social Darwinism.

Local Strike

In the early spring of 1894, after winning an 18-day strike against the Great Northern Railroad, the ARU found itself with 150,000 members—60,000 more than all the railroad brotherhoods put together, and only 25,000 fewer than the combined unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). While this dynamic new force inspired hostility from leaders of the old craft brotherhoods and uneasiness on the part of AFL president Samuel Gompers, the organization was a magnet for the employees of the Pullman Company involved in an escalating dispute with their employer.

Pullman was a 600-acre "model town" of roughly 12,000 residents founded in 1880 by luxury sleeping car manufacturer George Pullman. Annexed by the city of Chicago in 1889, in 1894 it housed over 3,000 Pullman Company wage earners, as well as a large number of laid-off Pullman workers. The company owned every inch of property in Pullman, including the town's only church. An experiment in labor and public relations, the town's brick construction, careful design, order, cleanliness, amenities, and lack of saloons both advertised the Pullman Palace Car Company and represented a bold, innovative attempt to preempt class conflict.

During the depression of 1893, the utopian town proved spectacularly unsustainable. Pullman residents had long been dissatisfied with Pullman's paternalism, which many characterized as industrial feudalism. One resident is reported to have stated that "we are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shop, taught in a Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman church, and when we die we shall be buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman hell." Likewise, employees had standing grievances against corrupt, incompetent, and arbitrary foremen. By April 1894 the ARU had enlisted about 4,000 members in Pullman.

During the winter of 1893-1894 the company had slashed wages by an average of 25 percent. The company also reduced commercial rents paid by shopkeepers; yet, the town's retail prices and high residential rents remained unchanged. Moreover, management accepted no cuts in salary or personnel, and the company did not reduce dividends paid to investors. On 7 and 9 May committees of Pullman workers presented their demands to Pullman management: either lower rents or return to the wage levels of May 1893.

The company responded by firing three local union leaders, so Pullman workers voted to strike on 10 May 1894. The ARU, which was holding its first annual convention in Chicago 9-26 June, received appeals for help. Debs, fearing that the ARU had not developed sufficient organization or alliances for a major confrontation, urged caution. On 21 June, nevertheless, moved by the testimony of "girls' union" president Jennie Curtis, the ARU determined to stop handling Pullman cars on 26 June unless the company agreed to arbitration. Likewise, the powerful Chicago Trades and Labor Assembly, itself representing 150,000 members, pledged its support, though setting its own strike date of 11 July in order to give Pullman an opportunity to accept arbitration.

Instead of replying to the ARU, the company consulted with the General Managers Association (GMA). The association, which represented at least 24 railroads terminating in or passing through Chicago, vowed to fire and replace any worker who participated in the ARU boycott of Pullman cars. It also worked single-mindedly to secure government support, particularly that of President Grover Cleveland, in the campaign to break the strike.

A Nationwide Strike

This boycott changed the struggle from a local dispute into what Debs called "a contest between the producing classes and the money power of the country." Starting on 26 June, the boycott of Pullman cars led immediately to a nationwide strike against the GMA, as ARU locals walked off the job whenever a switchman was fired for boycotting a Pullman car.

By the end of June, most of the nation's train traffic—and virtually all of it to the west of Chicago—had been shut down. In some cases crowds of 2,000 or more gathered to encourage or require switchmen to disengage Pullman trains. Approximately 260,000 railroad workers were involved in the strike, almost half of them not affiliated with the ARU, and the boycott spread to 26 states, idling about 500,000 workers from California to Maine.

The association responded cunningly, reassigning mail cars to trains containing Pullman cars in order to create a rationale for federal intervention. The GMA also responded brutally, assembling a private army to subdue the strikers. Over 1,000 unsupervised, newly deputized U.S. marshals employed and armed by the railroads assumed duty on 30 June—in some cases firing, with fatal consequences, into unarmed crowds.

Class War

On 2 July U.S. attorney general Richard Olney obtained an indictment against the strikers under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. (This was the first time the Sherman Act, supposedly a curb on corporate monopolies, had been applied.) Simultaneously, 2,000 federal troops were dispatched to Chicago by order of President Cleveland. Debs and three other ARU officials were arrested, charged with interrupting the mails and with various vague "conspiracy" charges, and then released under $10,000 bail.

The arrival of troops in Chicago and the imprisonment of the principal officers of the ARU escalated the level of destruction and violence associated with the strike. Debs's dream of peaceful, nonprovocative action—a reality in Pullman, which reported no property destruction whatsoever—became a nightmare of riot and reprisal. Trains were overturned and fires were set. Chicago, specifically the Blue Island junction, remained the epicenter of the conflict: roughly 14,000 armed men maintained "order" for the railroads, ransacking union offices, arresting hundreds of strikers and union sympathizers, and killing dozens. No one was indicted for any of these murders, and strikers and their allies suffered all reported fatalities. The vast American West was an equally significant battleground, and it took 12,000 federal troops—roughly half of the U.S. standing army—to repress the strike.

The strike had earned significant, though far from unanimous, labor solidarity and community support. Some local and national representatives of the middle class also supported the strikers. Attorney Clarence Darrow represented the ARU, while a young Methodist minister, William Carwardine, served as an influential strike leader in Pullman. The populist senator from Kansas, William A. Peffer, denounced Pullman from the floor of the U.S. Senate. The Chicago Civic Association, led by social worker Jane Addams, offered to mediate; Debs was receptive, but the Pullman Company responded that "there is nothing to arbitrate." Chicago mayor John Hopkins supported the strikers materially as well as politically. Most appreciated by the strikers, Illinois governor Peter Altgeld strenuously opposed the introduction of federal troops, insisting in a 5 July telegram to President Cleveland that "so very little actual violence has been committed."

Public sympathy for the strike, initially strong, diminished over the course of the boycott. Consumers were inconvenienced by the disruption of transportation and the resulting rise in the price of commodities, especially perishable food. As the Pullman conflict grew to national proportions, a shift in press coverage (partly reflecting the political and economic differences between local and national opinion making) influenced public perceptions as well. Initially scornful of the company's refusal to negotiate and of the GMA's dependence on a reportedly lawless and drunken private army of deputy marshals, journalists tended to become more critical of "King Debs" and the ARU as the disruption continued.

Defeat and Legacy

Force of arms got the trains running again by 9 July—a situation not reversed by the one-day Chicago general strike of 11 July. Debs urgently reached out to the AFL for assistance. Gompers and his colleagues backed away, saluting the ARU's "impulsive, vigorous protest against the gathering, growing forces of plutocratic power and corporation rule," but considering it "folly" to join the ARU in being destroyed. The AFL committed only $1,000 to Debs's defense and even refused to act as a liaison between the ARU and the GMA.

On 17 July, Debs and other ARU officers were arrested again, this time for contempt of court. (Finally sentenced in January 1895, they served six months.) Most troops were withdrawn from the rail lines by 19 July. On 2 August the Pullman works reopened. Returning workers were forced to sign an oath repudiating the ARU, and many were blacklisted. Though never officially ended, the strike's last gasps came as the United States celebrated its first national Labor Day, which was signed into law by a president anxious to counteract the taint of being a strikebreaker.

The Pullman strike was a blow from which the ARU never recovered. Yet the strike also discredited Pullman's attempt to merge urban planning and labor relations, and it split the Democratic Party (with such key figures as Cleveland and Altgeld at loggerheads), resulting in the party's shift to radical populism in 1896.

Under the impact of the defeat of labor radicalism and industrial unionism in 1894—with the Pullman defeat as well as the bituminous miner's strike that nearly destroyed the United Mine Workers of America—labor's mainstream shifted in a very different direction from Debs's open embrace of socialism. Gompers accelerated his turn away from labor radicalism. He asserted that the AFL should focus on building strong craft unions with a "pure and simple" orientation that explicitly accepted capitalism and further maintained that "responsible" labor leaders should forge alliances with "liberal-minded" businessmen.

The Pullman strike contributed to the rise of a major new force in American life: the progressivism that flourished in the next two decades. The trajectory of writer and social critic Henry Demarest Lloyd encapsulated the shift in thought. Initially hopeful over the prospects of the emergence of a mass socialist workers' movement in the 1890s (to be led by Gompers), Lloyd was bitterly disappointed by the workers' defeat and, with many other reformers, concluded that a less radical, cross-class, urban "progressivism" held more promise for the country. In response to the arbitrary powers of employers and judges, as well as to the unpredictable behavior of aggrieved workers, progressives pursued policies to make government power a neutral intermediary in the conflict between the classes.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the strike was the seeming miracle of a powerful working-class solidarity that shook the structures of power. Debs affirmed, "This act will shine forth in increasing splendor long after the dollar worshipers have mingled with the dust of oblivion."

Key Players

Curtis, Jennie (ca. 1875-1927): Played a central role in the organization of workers at Pullman, especially women. Through her consultation with Debs, her speech to the ARU convention, and perhaps also her legendary dance with Chicago mayor Hopkins at a strike-support fundraiser, Curtis stands out as a significant leader of the early phases of the strike. She was interviewed by the U.S. Strike Commission on 16 August 1894.

Debs, Eugene Victor (1855-1926): Active in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and by 1880 the editor of its national journal. By the early 1890s Debs had become convinced of the necessity of a more industrial unionism and helped to form the American Railway Union (ARU). After its destruction in the Pullman strike, and after imprisonment for his role in that strike, Debs became a prominent socialist, helping to form the Socialist Party of America in 1901 and running five times as the socialist candidate for president of the United States. He helped to form the Industrial Workers of the World, although he also favored supporting AFL unions. He was imprisoned again for his opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Prominent in the Cigar Makers Union, Gompers became the long-time (1886-1924) and increasingly conservative president of the American Federation of Labor, a spokesman for the "pure and simple union" orientation initially developed by his colleague Adolph Strasser. In his later years he became an outright opponent of socialism, though he never lost his admiration for Karl Marx, whose outlook he viewed as consistent with his own "pure and simple" unionism.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Eight-hour Day Movement; Haymarket Riot; Panic of 1893; Railroad Strike of 1877; Sherman Antitrust Act.



Boyer, Richard O., and Herbert M. Morais. Labor's UntoldStory. New York: United Electrical, Radio, & Machine Workers of America, 1975.

Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! Boston, MA: South End Press,1997.

Carwardine, William H. The Pullman Strike. Chicago, IL:Charles H. Kerr & Company, for the Illinois Labor History Society, 1971.

Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. Vol. 2: From the Founding of the American Federation of Labor to the Emergence of American Imperialism. New York: International Publishers, 1988.

Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Manning, Thomas G., ed. The Chicago Strike of 1894:Industrial Labor in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1960.

Marx, Eleanor, and Edward Aveling. The Working-Class Movement in America, edited by Paul Le Blanc. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000.

Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Schneirov, Richard, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore, eds. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Stromquist, Shelton. A Generation of Boomers: The Pattern of Railroad Labor Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Warne, Colston E., ed. The Pullman Boycott of 1894 and the Problem of Federal Intervention. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1955.

—Paul Le Blanc/Joel Woller

Pullman Strike

views updated May 29 2018


The Pullman Strike of 1894 was one of the most influential events in the history of U.S. labor. What began as a walkout by railroad workers in the company town of Pullman, Illinois, escalated into the country's first national strike. The events surrounding the strike catapulted several leaders to prominence and brought national focus to issues concerning labor unrest, socialism, and the need for new efforts to balance the economic interests of labor and capitalism.

In 1859, 28-year-old George M. Pullman, an ambitious entrepreneur who had moved from New York to Chicago, found success as a building contractor. When a new sewage system was installed that necessitated the raising of downtown buildings by ten feet, he ran a business where he oversaw large teams of men working with huge jacks to raise the buildings. Pullman quickly became wealthy.

Continuing his penchant for innovation, Pullman turned in 1867 to the subject of railroad travel and created a new line of luxury railroad cars featuring comfortable seating, restaurants, and improved sleeping accommodations. As demand for the "Pullman coaches" grew, Pullman further demonstrated his financial acumen. He did not sell his sleeping cars; instead he leased them to railroad companies. By 1893, the Pullman Company operated over 2,000 cars on almost every major U.S. railroad, and the company was valued at $62 million.

A firm believer in capitalism and moral uplift, Pullman gathered a group of investors and began to build the nation's first model industrial town near Lake Calumet on the southwest edge of Chicago. Between 1880 and 1884, the village of Pullman was built on 4,000 acres. In addition to the company's manufacturing plants, the town contained a hotel, a school, a library, a church, and office buildings as well as parks and recreational facilities. Houses were well-built brick structures that featured cutting-edge conveniences of the era such as indoor plumbing and gas heat. Other innovations included regular garbage pick-up, a modern sewer system, and landscaped streets. An equally firm believer in the necessity of making a profit, Pullman operated his town as he operated his company, leasing the housing to his workers and selling them food, gas, and water at a 10 percent markup.

A significant drop in the country's gold reserves, prodigious spending of U.S. Treasury surpluses, and the passage in 1890 of the Sherman Silver Act led to the financial panic of 1893. The ensuing corporate failures, mass layoffs of workers, and bank closings plunged the country into a major depression. In response, the Pullman Company fired more than a third of the workforce and instituted reduced hours and wage cuts of more than 25 percent for the remaining hourly employees. Because Pullman had promised the town's investors a 6 percent return, there was no corresponding reduction in the rents and other charges paid by the workers. Rent was deducted directly from their paychecks, leaving many workers with no money to feed and clothe their families.

In desperation, many workers joined the newly established American Railway Union (ARU) that claimed a membership of 465 local unions and 150,000 workers. ARU organizer and president eugene v. debs had become nationally prominent when he led a short but successful strike against the Great Northern Railway in early 1894. In May 1894, the workers struck the Pullman Company. Debs directed the strike and widened its scope, asking other train workers outside Chicago to refuse to work on trains that included Pullman cars. While the workers did agree to permit trains carrying the U.S. mail to operate as long as they did not contain Pullman cars, the railroads refused to compromise. Instead, they added Pullman cars to all their trains, including the ones that only transported freight.

Despite repeated attempts by the union to discuss the situation with Pullman, he refused to negotiate. As the strike spread, entire rail lines were shut down. The railroads quickly formed the General Managers Association (GMA) and announced that switchmen who did not move rail cars would be fired immediately. The ARU responded with a union-wide walkout. By the end of June, 50,000 railroad workers had walked off their jobs.

The economic threat and sporadic violence led the GMA to call for federal troops to be brought in. Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, who was sympathetic to the cause of the striking workers, refused the request for troops. In July, U.S. attorney general richard olney, who supported the GMA, issued a broad injunction called the Omnibus Indictment that prohibited strikers and union representatives from attempting to persuade workers to abandon their jobs.

When striking workers were read the indictment and refused to disperse, Olney obtained a federal court injunction holding the workers in contempt and, in effect, declaring the strike illegal. When the workers still refused to end the strike, Debs and other leaders were arrested and Olney requested the federal troops saying they were needed to move the mail. President grover cleveland sent more than 2,000 troops to Chicago, and fighting soon broke out between the rioting strikers and soldiers. Soldiers killed more than a dozen workers and wounded many more.

With strike leaders in prison and a growing public backlash over the looting and arson committed by some striking workers, the strike was effectively broken. Most of the workers returned to their jobs in August, although some were blacklisted and never again worked for the railroads. Debs was charged with contempt of court for disobeying the court injunction and conspiracy to obstruct the U.S. mail. clarence darrow, an attorney who had quit his job as general counsel of the Chicago and North Western Railway, defended Debs and the other ARU leaders, but they were convicted and spent six months in prison. They were released in November 1895.

Darrow went on to become a prominent defense attorney as well as a well-known public orator. Debs, whose contempt of court conviction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564, 15 S.Ct. 900, 39 L.Ed. 1092 (1895), was further radicalized by his experiences. In high demand as a popular speaker particularly in the industrial states of the North, Debs became the influential leader of the Socialist Party, running for president several times between 1900 and 1920.

Pullman, who continued to regard himself as a morally upright man despite the critical findings of a presidential commission appointed to investigate the strike, died in 1897. Fearful that his body might be degraded or stolen by former strikers, Pullman's family had his body buried in a concrete and steel casket in a tomb covered with steel-reinforced concrete. In 1971, the former "company" town of Pullman was designated as a national landmark district.

The Pullman Strike of 1894 and its aftermath had an indelible effect on the course of the labor movement in the United States. The use of federal troops and the labor injunction sent a message to U.S. workers that would not change until the new deal of the 1930s. The polarization of management and labor would continue for decades.

further readings

Hirsch, Susan E. 2003. After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman. Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Papke, David Ray. 1999. The Pullman Case. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Stein, R. Conrad. 2001. The Pullman Strike and the Labor Movement in American History. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow.


Blacklist; Labor Union; Strike.

Pullman Strike

views updated May 11 2018

Pullman Strike

In 1894 railroad industry workers in Chicago, Illinois , found themselves facing a labor situation they could not abide. George Pullman (1831–1897) had founded the town of Pullman, Illinois (just south of Chicago), in 1880 and opened a railroad-car manufacturing plant there. The town was just 300 acres in size, but it was home to factories, mills, and a foundry (where iron and steel are made into usable products), as well as homes, public buildings, and shops. Pullman's twelve hundred residents had few economic choices in their lives. The money they spent on rent (Pullman's homes could be rented, but not owned), food, gas, and anything else went directly to the Pullman Palace Car Company. As in the patch towns miners lived in, prices in Pullman were higher than they were elsewhere.

Pullman's company was successful. At the end of 1893, he was paying $7.22 million in wages and another $2.52 million in dividends (monies paid to stockholders). America was hit with an economic depression that year, and it lasted until 1897. During that time, Pullman fired more than three thousand workers and cut the wages of those still in his employment. He did not lower the cost of housing or services, though. Once those deductions were taken from wages, most employees were left with $6 a week on which to live. And yet the company continued to pay its shareholders the regular dividend amounts.

In May 1894, Pullman listened as a committee of dissatisfied employees complained about the situation. He refused to consider raising wages or lowering prices of rent and services in the town. Pullman insisted that what he did as an employer should have no bearing on his role as a landlord. Then, against a promise he had made earlier, he fired three of the workers on the committee. This breach of promise led the Pullman local labor union (a formally organized association of workers that advances its members’ views on wages, work hours, and labor conditions) to strike on May 11.

When the union declared the strike, Pullman immediately fired the six hundred workers who were not involved and closed its doors. History was on the side of business when it came to labor disputes. Pullman was prepared to wait out the strike, which he believed would not last long. Pullman workers realized how serious the situation was and approached the American Railway Union (ARU) for help. The ARU, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926), called for a boycott (an organized refusal to deal with a business) of all Pullman cars on June 26, 1894. About 150,000 railway workers across the country complied, and within a couple days, trains were not leaving Chicago.

Business was negatively affected by the Pullman strike, as was mail delivery and transportation in general. This strike affected not just Chicago or even all of Illinois, but the entire nation. Railroad companies had no choice but to call on the government for assistance in breaking the strike. When Illinois governor John Altgeld (1847–1902) refused to summon military troops and made it clear that his sympathies lay with the strikers, the railroads went directly to the federal level. When Debs ignored a federal circuit court order demanding workers return to their jobs, he was arrested for contempt of court and conspiracy to interfere with the mail, and he served a six-month jail sentence.

President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89 and 1893–97) did what no president before him had ever done: He intervened in a labor strike. On July 4, he sent in twenty-five hundred federal troops to halt the strike. Rioting occurred July 7–9 when strikers attacked the military troops. Soldiers responded with gunfire at pointblank range. About thirty strikers were killed and many more were wounded. The twenty-five hundred federal troops soon became fourteen thousand as state and other federal troops joined in the confrontation. The strikers were defeated within the week. After several weeks of negotiating, the Pullman Palace Car Company reopened its doors on August 2. As part of the agreement, strikers were allowed to return to work unless they had been convicted of crimes during the strike.

The conflict did not benefit the workers. Debs went to prison, the ARU disbanded, and American society supported big business and management more unwaveringly than ever before.

Pullman Strike

views updated May 18 2018


PULLMAN STRIKE. The Pullman Strike began on 11 May 1894, when workers at the Pullman Car Works in Chicago laid down their tools and walked off their jobs. Multiple factors precipitated their action. Pullman's preparations for the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition had raised wages and hours to new highs; the collapse of the national economy even as the exposition continued then drove them down to levels inadequate to meet basic needs. A harsh winter exhausted savings and left Pullman families vulnerable and angry. Exacerbating that anger was their complicated relationship with George M. Pullman and the town that bore his name. Almost half of the car works' employees lived in the Pullman Company's much-publicized planned community that provided residents with services and housing of a quality rarely found in working-class communities and bound their lives even more closely to company policies. Finally, recruiters for the American Railway Union (ARU), confident after the union's recent success against the Great Northern Railroad, promised the union's support for any action the Pullman manufacturing workers, if not its African American porters, took against the company.

George Pullman's refusal to intervene on their behalf and his apparent betrayal in laying off union leaders provoked the strike, but the hesitation of ARU's president Eugene V. Debs to launch a boycott of Pullman cars shaped its early weeks. Strikers realized that the company was too strong and Pullman too opposed to unionization of any kind for them to win alone. Helped by Chicago Mayor John P. Hopkins, himself a disgruntled former Pullman employee, strikers turned the company's publicity for the town on its head. Pointing to the poverty hidden within the town and recalling Richard T. Ely's critique of its undemocratic nature, they painted a portrait of an oppressive, closed environment that denied them and their families their rights as Americans. They especially targeted their message to the press and delegates to the upcoming ARU convention in Chicago.

Their strategy worked. At the end of June, the convention voted a boycott of all trains pulling Pullman cars. Rail traffic slowed and then stopped in the western United States; violence spread from Indiana to California. As the boycott grew, the struggle shifted from the Pullman Company to the ARU, the railroads' General Managers Association, and the U.S. government. Federal intervention ultimately decided the results. Federal judges issued an injunction prohibiting interference with trains and the mail they carried. President Grover Cleveland authorized federal troops to restore order from Chicago to California. ARU President Debs was jailed and later convicted of violating the provisions of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Although the boycott collapsed by mid-July, the strike at Pullman continued well into August when the company gave most employees the opportunity to return to work if they abandoned the ARU. The legacy of both the company and the ARU, however, continued long after. Led by Governor John Peter Altgeld, the state of Illinois sued to force the company to sell the town. Debs embraced socialism and engaged the political system directly. The ARU and its industrial unionism receded until the federal government in the New Deal finally reversed its policies toward labor and unions forged during the Pullman Strike.


Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Smith, Carl S. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, The Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Janice L.Reiff

See alsoLabor ; Strikes ; andvol. 9:The Pullman Strike and Boycott, June, 1894 .