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The Pullman Strike
May 11, 1894
On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago struck to protest wage cuts and the firing of union representatives. They sought support from their union, the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, and on June 26 the ARU called a boycott of all Pullman railway cars.Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic. He owns the houses, the schoolhouse, and the churches of God in the town he gave his once humble name.
And, thus, the merry war — the dance of skeletons bathed in human tears — goes on; and it will go on, brothers, forever unless you, the American Railway Union, stop it; end it; crush it out.
— Jennie Curtis, President of ARU Local 269, the "Girls" Local Union, Address to the 1894 Convention of American Railway Union
Within days, 50,000 rail workers complied and railroad traffic out of Chicago came to a halt. When the railroad owners asked the Federal government to intervene, Attorney General Richard Olney, a director of the Burlington and Santa Fe railroads, obtained (July 2) a court injunction. On July 4, President Cleveland dispatched troops to Chicago.
Much rioting and bloodshed ensued, but the government's actions broke the strike and the boycott soon collapsed. Debs and three other union officials were jailed for disobeying the injunction.
The nation's newspapers, were objective as always. Chicago Tribune headlines from June 31,1894 described the events of the Pullman Strike thusly:
"Debs Strikers Begin Work Of Destruction, Guns Awe Them Not, Drunken Stockyard Rioters Defy Uncle Sam's Troops, Mobs Invite Death"
The New York Times, never one to side with business rather than labor, in an 1894 editorial called Eugene Debs"A lawbreaker & an enemy to the human race."
The Pullman Railroad Strike, largest industrial strike to date in U.S. history, eventually broken by federal government troops, resulted in at least 24 strikers killed, & Beloved & Respected Comrade Leader President Grover Cleveland suspended the constitutional right to assembly (the ability of any two or more people to meet in public) in seven states.
- June 20, 1893 Workers founded the American Railway Union to unite railway labor in a single organization. Eugene Debs was the leader. Sept. 1893-May 1894 The Pullman Works reduced wages, on the average by 25 percent, while not lowering rents in company houses. March, April 1894 Workers in Pullman’s Palace Car Company joined the American Railroad Union. May 7, 9 A committee of Pullman workers waited on management but received no concessions, either in the form of increased wages or lowered rents. May 10 Three of the committee were laid off, allegedly for lack of work. That evening Pullman workers voted to strike. May 11 Pullman works closed. June 9-26 The American Railway Union convened in Chicago, representing 465 local unions and a claimed membership of 15,000. June 15, 22 The Pullman Company refused to receive any communication from the American Railway Union or to permit five proposed arbitrators to determine whether there was anything to arbitrate. June 21 Delegates of ARU voted to stop handling Pullman cars on June 26th unless the Pullman Company agreed to arbitration. June 22 The Pullman Company met with General Managers’ Association and reached an agreement to resist the proposed boycott. June 26 The boycott and accompanying strikes began and spread rapidly as General Manager’s’ Association members discharged men who refused to switch passenger trains with Pullman cars. June 29 the number of strikers had increased to a total of 50,000 workers. June 29 After a visit to Blue Island, Illinois by Debs, following a peaceful rally, strikers took matters in their own hands- “derailing a locomotive, destroying the yards and setting fire to anything that moved” (Altman, 1994, p. 44). Attorney General Onley was hoping for just such action from the beginning, providing a basis to champion an injunction against the strike. Onley got the injunction he was seeking on July 2. July 2 A Federal injunction was issued (served on July 3 and July 4). This injunction enjoined ARU leaders from "compelling or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees to refuse or fail to perform their duties." July 3 Federal troops entered the dispute. The reaction of the strikers to the appearance of the troops was that of outrage. July 4 What had been a basically peaceful strike turned into complete mayhem today with mobs of people setting off fireworks and tipping over rail cars and build blockades in reaction to the presence of the federal troops. There was additional level of chaos caused by the ARU leaders' inability to communicate with the strikers because of the federal indictments. July 5, 6 Governor Altgeld of Illinois & Chicago mayor John. Hopkins, were vehemently opposed to the presence of federal troops in the area & protested; President Cleveland continued to send in federal troops. July 6 Burning and rioting came to a zenith, when fires caused by some 6,000 rioters destroyed 700 railcars and caused $340,000 of damages in the South Chicago Panhandle yards. July 7 A large fire consumed seven buildings at the World's Colombian Exposition in Jackson Park. At this time in the Chicago vicinity, there were 6,000 federal and state troops, 3,100 police, and 5,000 deputy marshals; national guardsmen after being assaulted, fired into the crowd killing at least four (possibly up to thirty) and wounding at least twenty. Two more people were killed by troops in Spring Valley, Illinois. July 7 Debs and the other principal officers of the ARU were arrested, indicted, and held under $10,000 bail.
July 12 An AFL meeting in Chicago refused to authorize sympathetic action. The ARU unsuccessfully offered to abandon the strike, provided that the workers were rehired without prejudice, except where convicted of crime. August 2 Pullman works reopened. Strike ended. Local leaders were not rehired. August 3 The strike was declared over. Debs went to prison, his ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. Aside from the already existing American Federation of Labor and the various railroad brotherhoods, industrial workers' unions were effectively stamped out and remained so until the Great Depression. The failure of the strike “convinced Eugene Debs that the lives of American workers would never improve, unless they controlled governmental power through their strength of numbers in elections” & he thus formed a socialist party & ran for President numerous times. August 15 Hearings of the US Strike Commission began in Chicago. An investigating committee appointed by Cleveland later revealed the abuses of the strikers by the courts. May 27 1895 Supreme Court Justice David Brewer speaks for the court, explains why he refused the American Railway Union's appeal of Debs' conviction for violating the federal injunction (defended by Clarence Darrow & Lyman Trumbull before the Supreme Court). This decision was a great set-back for the trade union movement. A conservative, Brewer was particularly hostile to the emerging socialist movement. He criticised all plans to redistribute wealth and made many speeches in favour of inequality.
Timeline adapted & supplemented from The Pullman Boycott of 1894: The Problem of Federal Intervention, Coston E. Warne, ed. (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1955), as found online at http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/mmh/1912/content/pullman.cfm
See Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval (Chicago: University of Chicago,1942, repr. 1964); William Cawardine, The Pullman Strike (1973); Adelman, William. Touring Pullman. (Illinois Labor History Society, 1993); Commission on Chicago Landmarks, North Pullman District. (Chicago, 1992); Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks, A Summary of Information on the South Pullman District. (1972).
United States Infantry in the Stock Yards, by Fredric Remington, from Harper's Weekly Magazine
Happy Labor Day… you Socialist sons of bitches
Diego Rivera Mural, Pullman Strike
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