The Pullman Strike
The Pullman Strike was a nationwide railway strike that occurred from May through July, 1894, causing to the disruption of rail traffic throughout the nation, riots and property damage in and around the city of Chicago, the arrest of strike leaders, and 30 deaths.
This strike was the first national strike in the country’s history. President Grover Cleveland intervened to restore order, using federal troops against the striking workers, a decision that led to other controversies. Strike leader Eugene V. Debs was among those arrested an imprisoned, and he eventually became a leader of the American Socialist Party as the result of his experiences and subsequent disillusionment with the federal government and the courts.
Leading Up to the Strike
Prior to the strike, the nation was in the midst of economic struggles brought on by the Panic of 1893, and many companies had seen profits plummet. The Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago, Illinois, was no exception. To shore up the company’s bottom line, owner George Pullman announced wage cuts for employees that in some cases amounted to 25% of their pay, but he did not offset the cuts with any reduction in rents and fees for those workers who lived in company housing, the “Pullman Village” on Chicago’s South Side.
Prior to the strike, the nation was in the midst of economic struggles brought on by the Panic of 1893, and many companies had seen profits plummet.
Workers’ attempts to negotiate rent reductions with the Pullman leadership failed, and some of the workers involved were fired for their efforts. Workers walked off their jobs peacefully on May 10, 1894, and the Pullman Plant temporarily closed.
No progress was made in negotiations to end the strike, and after several weeks workers began to get desperate. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union (ARU), called for a boycott of any trains in the country that leased Pullman Palace Cars until the company agreed to arbitrate. Though most Pullman employees were not ARU members, the boycott caught hold and by mid-June, over 125,000 railroad workers had walked off the job.
Though most Pullman employees were not ARU members, the boycott caught hold and by mid-June, over 125,000 railroad workers had walked off the job.
The Chicago rail yards were paralyzed and dozens of national rail lines that fed into Chicago were affected. The railway owners began to hire strikebreakers, among them many African-Americans who felt the ARU discriminated against minorities. Despite Debs’ efforts at negotiation, violence began to break out by the end of June as frustrated strikers in Chicago set fire to several buildings and damaged a locomotive.
The railway owners began to hire strikebreakers, among them many African-Americans who felt the ARU discriminated against minorities.
The Feds Intervene
On July 2, President Grover Cleveland and Attorney General Richard Olney, at the urging of Chicago business owners, issued a federal injunction demanding that the strikers and their leaders call off all actions or face arrest. The injunction, known as the Omnibus Indictment, was based on powers given to the government by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act. Both pieces of legislation were designed to be used to limit the powers of monopolies, so their use against striking workers was questionable in the eyes of many.
The injunction, known as the Omnibus Indictment, was based on powers given to the government by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act.
Though he faced dissension within union ranks, Debs refused to back down and federal troops were sent into Chicago, over the objections of Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld. Rioting quickly followed and by July 7, a number of fires raged throughout the city, over 700 railroad cars had been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage had been done to the South Chicago rail yards.
National guardsmen fired into rioting crowd killing at least four and wounding many others. Before the strike was broken, the effort involved thousands of federal troops, national guardsmen, and extra deputy marshals, as well as 3,000 Chicago policemen. Property damage across the nation reached over 80 million dollars.
The Country is Divided
The country was divided about the strike. While there was some sympathy for the workers, many others feared the violence and resented the railway disruption. Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld protested Cleveland’s intervention, maintaining that he could have handled matters and pointing out the fact that much of the violence came as a reaction to federal troops.
Labor leaders were divided themselves, with some prominent figures like Samuel Gompers speaking out against the national strike. The national press focused on the violence and fanned nativist reactions by describing the ranks of strikers as filled with immigrants and anarchists. Strikers were blamed for the deaths of four soldiers as far away as California. President Cleveland had the full backing of the pro-business Republican majority in Congress, even though some Democrats denounced his injunction as a misuse of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, a law originally intended to reign in the power of monopolists.
The national press focused on the violence and fanned nativist reactions by describing the ranks of strikers as filled with immigrants and anarchists.
Eugene V. Debs was arrested, along other strike leaders, on charges of obstructing commerce and the mails and failing to obey a federal injunction. Debs was defended by Clarence Darrow, who argued the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
Despite Darrow’s efforts, the industrialists and federal government were vindicated and Debs was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison with the landmark decision In Re Debs. This decision legitimized the use of federal injunctions to break up strikes and would remain in place until it was rescinded by the Wagner Act in 1935.
The In Re Debs decision legitimized the use of federal injunctions to break up strikes and would remain in place until it was rescinded by the Wagner Act in 1935.
Disillusioned with his experiences in the strike, Debs emerged from jail to found Social Democracy of America, a group that evolved into the Socialist Party of America. Debs led this group for decades, making five presidential runs as a Socialist candidate.
Learning From Pullman
President Cleveland authorized a study of the Pullman Strike the following year and ultimately determined that the Pullman Company did bear some of the responsibility for the chaos. This report condemned the company town concept as part of the problem, and “Pullman Village” was ultimately dismantled and blended into Chicago real estate, remembered only with a historical marker.
In an effort to soothe relations with workers throughout the nation, President Cleveland asked Congress to authorize the celebration of Labor Day as a national holiday to honor the country’s working classes.
George Pullman, company owner and originator of the circumstances that led to the strike, died of a heart attack in 1897. His family took the precaution of covering his grave in a Chicago cemetery with tons of concrete, to prevent any desecration of the site by disgruntled former employees.