The author at one time had "...the
privilege of living in the model town... " known as Pullman, Illinois. Today
it is part of Chicago. The development was built by George Pullman who had
organized the Pullman Palace Car Co. which manufactured train sleeping cars,
dining cars and parlor cars. The pain and injustices of the violent days of
the 1894 strike were deeply engrained in local family descendants.
The great national railroad strike and boycott of 1894, sometimes referred
to as the Chicago Railroad Strike, but more commonly known as the Pullman
Strike, was the climax to two decades of intermittent struggle between
American railroads and their employees. Because both sides were more
effectively organized than ever before, that strike was one of the longest,
most intense and bitterly fought labor disputes in the history of the United
States. It was truly nationwide in scope, affecting all parts of the country
and all segments of the national economy. It was ended only after massive
executive, judicial and military intervention by the Federal Government to
halt blockage of the nation's transportation arteries.
The importance of this conflict was
recognized at its onset by the nation's press, both the major metropolitan
dailies and the smaller local/regional papers across the country, all of
which carried daily reports and frequent editorials on the situation from
start to finish. The strike even received international attention with the
Times of London's news coverage and editorials throughout the
duration of the "American Railroad Labor War," as it was termed. The Times
coverage was an indication of the substantial investment of British capital
in the American railroads and industrial system. The New York Times
front-page story on June 29, 1894, shows that influential newspaper's early
realization of the strike's import:
With a simple beginning of a few
hundred discontented strikers at Pullman, Illinois, who were attempting to
force a local issue, the Pullman strike and consequent boycott has assumed
the proportions of the greatest battle between labor and capital that has
ever been inaugurated in the United States.
The initial setting was in the "model company town" of Pullman, Illinois, a
suburban community a few miles south of the great Midwestern railroad hub,
the city of Chicago. The town was created by George M. Pullman in the 1880s
as the location for his Pullman Palace Company for the manufacture of
railroad sleeping cars and other rolling stock. By the early months of 1893
the company had achieved a near monopoly in the production of his patented
Palace sleeping cars. Pullman contracted with most southern railroads and
all of the Midwestern and trans-Mississippi lines to operate and maintain
the sleeping cars which they bought or leased from his company. Pullman
employed 'the conductors, porters, attendants and brakemen who manned the
cars and also established shops for repair and maintenance of the Pullman
sleepers at the terminal cities or junction points on the various routes. In
addition he built plants for the manufacture of Pullman cars at St. Louis,
Ludlow (Kentucky) and Detroit, but the major works and company headquarters
remained in the town of Pullman.
In 1893 the company was employing 5,800
men and women in the home plant and shops in Pullman, most of whom lived in
housing built and owned by the company in the growing town of Pullman. A
small number of employees-managers, foremen, and higher paid workers in the
special skilled categories owned or rented in the near-by Chicago suburb
communities of Kensington, Roseland and Gano, while a few commuted a short
distance from the Hyde Park district in the city of Chicago. The company's
dual role of employer and landlord subsequently became a source of grievance
adding to the issues of pay and working conditions which led to the strike
In 1893 a financial panic in the New York
stock market and the American banking community precipitated a devastating
national depression. Before the year's end 491 American banks and over
15,000 business firms, including several of the larger railroad
corporations, failed or went into bankruptcy. Declining markets, falling
prices and shrinking profits resulted in widespread wage reductions, layoffs
of workers and the total shutdown of industrial plants for varying periods
of time in all parts of this nation.
Working class resentment mounted in
reaction to these calamitous economic conditions. Even with the very real
threat of being fired by individual employers and being blacklisted by
employer associations in the several industries, some 750,000 workers who
were still on company payrolls went on strike in 1894. Going into the second
year of the depression, an estimated four million men were out of work in
the United States.
Widespread fears of revolutionary
violence were roused by the spectacle of thousands of unemployed and
homeless men organizing in all sections of the country to march on
Washington as parts of Jacob Coxey's "industrial army." Their objective was
to gather at the National Capital and pressure Congress to provide
Government employment on public works and emergency relief aid for their
destitute and starving families, an estimated 40 million persons. These
proposals anticipated major features of the Roosevelt Administration's
Federal Relief Program 40 years later in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
For the staunchly conservative American
mainstream thought of the 1890s, however, these demands were much too
radical. The age-old concept of alms for the poor still prevailed. Care of
the indigent and homeless was left to the private sector, the churches and
other charitable institutions. In the drastic conditions of the 1890s
depression these private sources of aid were overwhelmed by the magnitude of
the relief problem. Such was the setting of a national economic and social
crisis in which the Pullman strike took place.
Even during the later 1880s when
employment was high, all was not harmonious in the idealized "model town"
and factory shops at Pullman, Illinois. The Chicago Tribune warned of
impending trouble as early as 1888:
Pullman may appear to be all glitter and glory to the casual visitor but
there is a deep, dark background of discontent which it would be idle to
During the panic year of 1893 several railroad companies cut back or
canceled orders for sleeping cars and other rolling stock manufactured by
the Pullman Company. President George Pullman responded by reducing his work
force from 5,800 to 1,100 before the year's end. He also cut wages of the
remaining workers by 25 percent.
Then, in a move to build up declining
business, he began to take new orders at a loss. He later claimed that in
1893 he built 300 passenger cars each at $300 under cost, and took the same
loss on cattle cars, refrigerator cars and other rolling stock manufactured
in the Pullman shops. To meet the resulting work orders he returned 2,200
men to company payrolls, so that his factory force had risen to 3,300 early
in 1894. Despite a loss in income in the manufacturing department between
September 1893 and May 1894, the company earned enough from its operations
department to absorb all the losses in manufacturing and to pay stockholders
the regular annual dividend of eight percent in 1894 while retaining a
surplus of over $2,320,000.
In the previous year of 1893, when
drastic cutbacks were made in wage scales and work force, the company kept a
surplus of over four million dollars after paying its regular dividend of
eight percent. In fact, if Pullman and his directors had chosen to do so,
they could have paid stockholders a dividend of 14 percent in 1894.
Furthermore, if the company had diverted only part of these surplus profits
to the payroll in 1893 and 1894, there would have been no need of the 25
percent cut in the workers' wages. Knowing this, the workmen were further
embittered by the fact that the salaries of company executives,
superintendents and shop foremen (their immediate bosses) were not reduced
at all. At the same time that the company reduced wages and laid off
workers, it did not, as landlord reduce the rents, utilities and other
mandatory services of workers who were forced to live in the company-owned
houses. Driven to desperation in the winter of 1893-94, the workers at
Pullman secretly began to organize for a confrontation with their employer.
Seeking outside help they turned to the
recently organized American Railway Union led by the charismatic labor
crusader, Eugene V. Debs. His model was the industrial union format of the
Knights of Labor which, since the 1870s, had sought to bring all workers
into one big union, in competition with the crafts-based American Federation
of Labor and the older Railroad Brotherhoods. Disappointed in his efforts to
persuade the several brotherhoods to unite for more effective bargaining
with the railroad corporations, Debs began to organize the American Railway
Union in 1892 and was elected its president at its first national convention
in Chicago in June 1893. The American Railway Union had a spectacular
success in its brief strike action that year against Jim Hill's Great
The young organization grew rapidly
thereafter, increasing its membership to 150,000 members enrolled in 485
local unions. These successes attracted the disaffected workers at Pullman
to the American Railway Union. The company's ironclad policy forbidding any
union activity in the company plant or in the town of Pullman carried with
it the threat of individuals being fired and blacklisted for even discussing
the possibility of organization with their fellow workers. That dire
prospect plus knowledge that the management employed a system of spies to
identify and weed out "trouble-makers" meant that the men had to hold secret
organizing meetings after work hours in nearby communities. In such meetings
through the early spring of 1894 a majority of the Pullman workers joined
the American Railway Union, forming 19 local unions with a total membership
of 4,000. They were technically eligible--fir this union because the company
owned and operated a few miles of railroad connecting the Pullman shops with
major lines in Chicago.
Encouraged by the prospect of American
Railway Union support the workers moved cautiously for accommodation of the
complaints in two meetings with company officers. On May 7 and 9 a workers'
committee pressed for restoration of former wage scales, reduction in
company-housing rents, and correction of certain shop abuses. The American
Railway Union national headquarters had inadequate reserves to support a
strike and saw the existing depression conditions as unfavorable for success
of a strike. But the embittered Pullman workers were determined to hold the
line on their demands despite American Railway Union President Debs' counsel
and his basic reluctance to resort to a strike except as a last resort.
The workers' two meetings with the
company's vice president, Wicks, and president, George Pullman, were
fruitless. Pullman refused to recognize any union representative and flatly
rejected the workers' demands for restored pay scales and reduced rents in
company housing. Pullman and Wicks also sought to convince the elected
workers' committee that the reduced wages and fixed rents were necessary for
the company's survival in the severe depression conditions of the time.
Pullman left these conferences convinced
that he had satisfactorily answered the workers' complaints with his
explanation of "necessity." While they were disappointed and still
dissatisfied, the employee delegation left the meetings with the assumed
understanding that there would be no retaliation against any member of their
committee. Given the executives' unyielding attitude and the employees'
determination not to accept their demeaning position any longer, the
possibility of any positive outcome seemed hopeless.
However, when three members of the
employees' committee were summarily fired the next day, 3000 Pullman workers
walked off the job on May 11lth, after an all-night meeting in which
American Railway Union representatives had strongly urged delay. The walkout
had been triggered by an unfounded rumor that the company was planning a
lockout. About 300 men did not join the exodus, but they, too, were put on
the street when the company closed the whole plant that night until further
The situation remained in status quo for
over a month. This was a localized strike involving unresolved controversy
between the Pullman Company and the employees of its main plant. Although
the strike involved a major corporation, it received only minor notice in
the press outside the region around Chicago.
George Pullman left town and refused to
heed warnings of the Mayor of Chicago and several business executives that
he negotiate with his workers. His imperious manner and cavalier attitude
toward the employees created much public sympathy for the workers. Among
fellow industrialists who commented on the situation none was more scathing
than Mark Hanna, a wealthy Ohio coal mine magnate and powerful figure in
Republican Party politics. He commented, "The damned idiot ought to
arbitrate, arbitrate, arbitrate! ... A man who won't meet his men half-way
is a God-damn fool!"
Several weeks passed with no change of
position or strategic move by either side, but it was a deceptive calm
before the storm which would shake the nation in late June. It was at that
point that Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union re-entered the picture
and converted the local strike into a national crisis situation.
On June 26 the union membership meeting
in convention in Chicago, called for a national boycott of Pullman cars on
all the railroads in the country. Within the next three days the strike
halted nearly all railroad traffic across the nation. The first and
continuous focal point of the strike was Chicago. That city was headquarters
of the American Railway Union and the main Midwestern crossroads terminal of
major railroads from the Eastern cities and trans-Mississippi lines to the
The union's action was immediately
countered by the General Managers' Association. That organization
represented 24 railroad lines operating 41,000 miles of track running east,
north and south into and out of Chicago. All of these companies and the
western continental lines (except the Great Northern) were paralyzed by the
union boycott against Pullman cars. Employees who refused to handle Pullman
cars were summarily discharged. Such actions immediately led to a strike by
all the categories of workmen encompassed by the American Railway Union.
A direct effect of the strike was to halt
movement of the United States mails, a circumstance which proved to be the
Achilles heel of the strike action. The crucial legal issue involved the
power of the Federal Government to prevent interference with trains carrying
mail, and to arrest and prosecute any persons whose actions halted a mail
Under President Grover Cleveland's second
administration (1893-1897) the executive, judicial and military branches of
the Federal Government played a decisive role in breaking the nation-wide
Pullman strike. President Cleveland, a Democrat, was even more actively
pro-railroad and anti-union than Republican President Hayes had been in the
national railroad strike of 1877. In the interim four years (1889-1893)
between his two presidential terms Cleveland had prospered immensely as a
partner in a wealthy law firm closely tied to big business interests,
including railroad corporations. His Attorney General, Richard Olney, also
had a long and successful career as a lawyer for several railroads and
banking corporations, and he vigorously favored these interests by his
actions in the Pullman strike.
Olney not only secured an omnibus
injunction against "conspiracy to interfere with passage of U.S. mails" from
pro-business Federal judges, he cooperated with the railroad's General
Managers' Association in drafting the writ which literally forbade almost
any action or verbal advocacy of any action which would halt trains carrying
mail. Since the railroad companies refused to operate trains without Pullman
cars, and virtually every passenger train included a mail car, the railroads
also contributed to the halting of all rail traffic.
Federal marshals, armed with this
prohibitive court writ (described as "a Gatling gun on paper"), were
empowered to arrest labor leaders inciting strike action, to disperse
strikers, and to arrest and jail individuals resisting the cease-and-desist
orders. When squads of deputy marshals were unsuccessful in dispersing
crowds of strikers, local authorities usually called for National Guard
units to enforce the writs. When the guardsmen proved to be ineffectual
backups, armed Federal troops were sent in by presidential order at the
request of Federal attorneys. In most cases the regular Army soldiers proved
to be the decisive forces which broke the strike.
The pattern of events which occurred in
Chicago, a place of origin and the central arena of the strike action, was
recapitulated with minor variations in other regional centers during the
three-week duration of this national crisis. The General Managers'
Association at Chicago had been formed in 1886 by the executives of 24
national and regional railroads terminating or centering in this city. It
was designed to deal with the problems of management, fix freight and
passenger rates, arrange pooling agreements and set labor policies and wage
scales for all the member firms. The Pullman strike thus pitted this
powerful organization of railroad corporations against the American Railway
Union, the first effective national labor union in the country's history.
At Chicago, from the first day of the
strike in late June to the climactic turn of the tide in early July,
thousands of strikers, active sympathizers and merely curious onlookers
massed at railroad stations, yards and shops in the city and in the suburbs.
They were successively confronted by city police, state militia (National
Guard), Federal marshals and finally by Federal troops. Initial random
violence was directed at halting and disabling trains, disconnecting Pullman
sleepers, upsetting cars at crossings. In some cases more serious actions
involved attempts at arson, disabling switches, removing or loosening rails
and assaulting persons guarding railroad property. Federal troops were
called out by Presidential order on July 1 and were assembled confronting
the crowds on July 3 and 4. They remained on duty at the railroad facilities
until the strike was officially ended. As a few trains began to move again
after the troops' arrival, detachments of armed soldiers accompanied these
first trains. In some locations the regular soldiers remained on duty at the
strike centers for as long as a month after the crisis had abated. A few
fatalities occurred when soldiers returned shots from crowds of strikers or
fired on crowds which appeared to threaten to attack before order was
restored at bayonet point.
The arrest of Debs and other union
officials at Chicago and other strike centers marked the beginning of the
end. Trains began to run again. The strike was effectively over by July 10
and it was recognized by the union leaders on July 16.
An interesting bit of byplay occurred when Illinois Governor Altgeld wired a
message to President Cleveland complaining that the Federal action calling
out the troops was unnecessarily hasty, as the Illinois National Guard was
ready and able to meet the situation. Cleveland's reply rejected the states
rights argument implicit in Altgeld's protest and firmly asserted the
Federal authority to protect interstate commerce and guarantee the passage
of the mail.
Major California Railroad Centers Shut
Within 24 hours after Debs' telegram of
June 26 to local union leaders at railroad centers across the country picket
lines were established by crowds around railroad facilities. Trains were
halted, disassembled, and either sidetracked or disabled and left to block
mainline tracks. By June 29 all major Western railroad lines were paralyzed
and trains were running on only a few local lines. Auxiliary transport owned
by the railroads, such as river steamers, ferry boats and city streetcar
lines were also tied up.
In California the three main railroad
centers at Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles were arenas of strike
activity. All three were major terminal and junction points for the
transcontinental rail lines. Sacramento was the most important as the
original Western terminus of the Central Pacific/Union Pacific cross-country
connection with the Midwest and Eastern United States, and the middle
junction city of the north-south Pacific states' route from San Diego to
Oakland was the San Francisco Bay
terminus for the transcontinental railroad where the rails met the major
Pacific Ocean port on the West Coast. It was also connected to the
north-south Southern Pacific line. Los Angeles was the western terminal
point of the southern and southwestern railroads - the Santa Fe lines from
Chicago, the Union Pacific from Salt Lake City and the Southern Pacific
running from New Orleans across Texas and New Mexico. It was also the main
southern terminal of the north-south Pacific Coast railroad with a branch
extension to San Diego.
In California the boycott of Pullman cars
and the strike against the railroad posed an unusual dilemma. The dominating
presence of the Central Pacific-Southern Pacific since the 1870s had
produced an intense public resentment against the railroad monopoly, the
"octopus" of Frank Norris' anti-railroad best-selling novel. Accordingly
there was much sympathy for Debs' American Railway Union in its deadlocked
conflict with the railroad. Even the press in California, by no means always
supportive of union-led strikes, was nearly unanimous in favoring the
workers' action. The influential Eastern journal, The Nation, on July
12 commented that there seemed to be no voice in the state raised in favor
of law and order, even to the point of the public's willing acceptance of
inconvenience and economic loss, "so long as the railroads suffer as much or
more." The Nation was obviously overlooking the dedicated hostility of
Harrison Gray Otis's influential Los Angeles Times to any and all union
activity, which General Otis equated with revolutionary anarchy. In fact
recent episodes of violent labor conflicts in the Idaho mines, the Haymarket
Square bombing incident in Chicago, and the bloodshed in the Homestead,
Pennsylvania, steel strike, led some of the people to conclude that the
Pullman strike was part of a vast conspiracy by unions to gain economic and
political control over the nation.
Until the intrusion of the Chicago strike
into the California labor scene the conservative Railroad Brotherhoods
engineers, firemen, brakemen, conductors, switchmen - each with its own
organization had maintained a no-strike policy. Their constitutions required
negotiation of all grievances, and a resort to strike only as a last
desperate measure to correct grievous wrongs. The brotherhoods represented
the skilled trades among the railway workers, while the much larger number
of unskilled and non-specialized laborers were left outside the fold of
union representation. Thousands of these unskilled and non-specialized
workers were recruited by the American Railway Union and eagerly rushed to
join that umbrella organization.
The first California local of the
American Railway Union (ARU) was organized in Los Angeles with members from
the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. The two companies immediately
moved to suppress the unit and fired and blacklisted known ARU members. By
this action the railroads were only sowing dragon's teeth. The blacklisted
men then went underground and launched a stealthy campaign all around the
state. They secretly distributed circulars and information about the union
and recruited new members. By these means they organized the Railway Union
chapters in Northern California, despite the railroad companies' attempts to
suppress growth of the union. In defiance of these aggressive attempts to
quash the movement, chapters were openly established in Sacramento, San
Francisco and Oakland. By January 1894, they had enrolled several thousand
members in California paralleling the rapid growth of the national ARU
membership to 150,000 in its first year.
On June 28, one day after Debs had called
for a nation-wide boycott against the use of Pullman cars, Southern Pacific
operations ground to a sudden halt. Strikers took control of most of the
stations and railroad yards including the main terminals at Sacramento,
Oakland, San Jose, Fresno and Los Angeles, as well as many of the smaller
way stations and brought normal activities to a stop. In various locations
rails were greased or removed from the roadbed, and tracks were blockaded
with disabled engines and cars. In one instance a trestle north of Redding
was burned. The union caught the railroad off guard by its demands that the
company voluntarily join the Pullman boycott, while the union guaranteed
non-interference with regular passenger and mail cars. The Southern Pacific
officials balked at this, and declared that they would operate no passenger
train without Pullman cars.
The stand-off mounted until the railroad
shut down completely. Federal marshals were brought in to put an end to the
boycott. Nearly 1,000 National Guard troops were mustered as reinforcements
against the Sacramento strikers by July 4. As fate would have it, many of
the guard were friends with the strikers and they refused to shoot. As a
result they were pulled back and an entire unit was arrested, ending in the
biggest court-martial in guard history.
By July 10, President Grover Cleveland
ordered the strikers to cease or be arrested. The next day he sent in
Federal troops and the rail yards were secured by Marines and Army Cavalry.
A train was assembled and left for the Bay area on July 11. It was waylaid
and derailed by strikers as it came into Yolo County and a number of
soldiers were killed. The troops followed up by attacking the strikers
resulting in more killings. By July 13 the strike was over.
A footnote: The man accused of organizing
the derailment of the train, one S. A. Worden, was arrested, convicted of
murder and sentenced to be executed. This sentence was later commuted to
life in prison. End of story - Worden was pardoned 27 years later and
released from Folsom prison.
* Workers had no option but to rent in Pullman where they paid rents 25 to
40 percent higher than in surrounding communities. They paid the company
marked up charges for gas, water, garbage collection, and daily watering of
streets. Food had to be bought at the company store. They even had to
subscribe to the company rental library.
Apartments had no bathtubs. There
was one water faucet for every five families. During the 1893 depression
some 3,000 workers out of 5,800 were laid off Wages for the rest were cut up
to 40 percent but there was no reduction of charges for services. An example
of the hard days ...one employee received a paycheck for two cents after
deductions. The company claimed it was losing over $300 on each car it
built, yet it kept right on paying its regular dividends.
Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1942). The authoritative work.
New York Times, June to August, 1894.
Sacramento Record Union, June to August, 1894.
Sacramento Bee, June to August, 1894.
United States Strike Commission Report [U.S. Senate Executive Document No.
Congress, 3rd Session] (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1895.) The
most valuable source available for study of the Pullman Strike.
Chicago Tribune, June to August, 1894.
Sacramento, Gold Rush Legacy (Sacramento County Historical Society, 1999).