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Pullman, Illinois workers strike for pay (Pullman Strike), 1894
In the wake of economic depression in 1893, George Pullman, Illinois businessman and inventor of the sleeping railway car, sought to cut costs in his company town outside of Chicago. Mr. Pullman fired approximately one third of his workers, and reduced remaining wages by over 25 percent. He refused to decrease housing and food prices in the town. The entire town of Pullman was owned by George Pullman and the Pullman Palace Car Company, and rents were automatically deducted from wages by the company. George Pullman refused to either lower rents or raise wages and workers began to organize and discuss the possibility of a strike.
During March and April of 1894 a majority of Pullman workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU), which was growing due to a recent successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad. The ARU had nearly 150,000 members and allowed all white men who worked for a railroad company to join.
A group of Pullman employees formed a grievance committee in order to negotiate with the company’s manager. On May 10, 1894, three members of this committee were laid off, purportedly for refusal to work. That evening the Pullman workers gathered, and despite warnings of caution and advice against striking from two top ARU officials and ARU president Eugene Debs, the Pullman workers unanimously voted to strike. On May 11, 1894, Pullman workers refused to work.
Pullman workers did not anticipate success. As one employee said, “We do not expect the company to concede to our demands… We do know that we are working for less wages than will maintain ourselves and our families in the necessaries of life, and on that proposition we absolutely refuse to work any longer.”
On June 9, the ARU held a convention in nearby Chicago. Pullman workers attended and appealed to the delegates for aid. The leadership of ARU sought to avoid the spread of what it saw as a possible sympathetic strike. But as George Pullman refused arbitration, a committee at the convention urged for a boycott of Pullman railroad cars, calling on switchmen to refuse trains pulling Pullman manufactured cars. On June 21, delegates unanimously voted to begin a boycott on June 26 unless George Pullman accepted arbitration.
Meanwhile, George Pullman was meeting with a body of railroad owners and managers organized in the General Managers Association (GMA). On June 22, the GMA decided to resist the proposed boycott.
The boycott of Pullman cars officially went into effect on June 26. Support spread widely, as the GMA continued to fire men who refused to switch trains with Pullman cars. On June 28, approximately 18,000 men were on strike and four or five Chicago railroads were stopped. Soon, almost all 26 railroads out of Chicago had stopped. All transcontinental lines, except the Great Northern, which carried no Pullman cars, were paralyzed.
Railroad workers in about 27 states joined the boycott, totaling an estimated 260,000 men. About half of these workers were not members of the ARU. The strike successfully cut freight out of Chicago’s major trunk lines by about three fourths between June 30 and July 7.
Eugene Debs and the executive board of the ARU operated a central office and sent out daily telegrams, but operational control rested in local strike committees. Debs and his associates continually urged strikers to be nonviolent.
The opposing organizational body, the GMA, organized the 26 Chicago railways and hired strikebreakers, many of whom were black and had been forbidden from joining the ARU. Notably, a number of older railroad unions, known as brotherhood organizations, stood in alliance with the GMA.
By June 30 the GMA aligned a legal committee to seek military and judicial support from the federal government. President Grover Cleveland and attorney general Richard Olney supported the GMA and began to take measures to crush the strike under the purview that it interfered with interstate trade and the distribution of federal mail. Olney appointed Edwin Walker, a member of the GMA to the position of special federal attorney in Chicago.
On July 2, Walker secured a blanket injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act forbidding all strike activities, including even attempting to persuade an employee to abandon his job. Over the protest of Illinois Governor John Altgeld, federal troops marched into Chicago on July 3.
On July 4, violence and property destruction erupted. A fire started by strikers destroyed the World’s Colombian Exposition; train cars were derailed and burned in multiple locations. Federal troops were also sent to large strikes in Colorado and California. In Chicago 13 people were killed and 53 were seriously wounded. Newsboys in Chicago refused to carry newspapers that opposed the strike. Local people in Chicago continued to support the ARU and Pullman workers.
On July 7, the 25,000 members of the Building and Trades Council of Chicago unanimously voted for a sympathetic strike and called for a national strike. President Cleveland issued a proclamation that appeared to put Chicago under martial law. Union heads gave George Pullman until July 10 to accept arbitration.
On July 11, Eugene Debs and three other executive board members of the ARU were arrested for breaking the June 2nd federal injunction. That day, the police ransacked the ARU office and searched Debs’ personal mail. Later, Olney publicly chastised Walker for this infringement of Debs’ rights. Following the arrest of Debs and the executive board, about 25,000 non-railroad workers proceeded with a general strike.
The American Federation of Labor, however, urged affiliates to return to work. The Pullman strike dwindled, and seemed to officially end between the end of July and early August. By the end of the strike, an estimated 34 people had been killed and federal or state troops had entered Nebraska, Iowa, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Illinois.
Eugene Debs was sentenced to 6 months in prison after being found guilty of contempt. In May 1895 the United States Supreme Court Justice David Brewer denied the ARU’s appeal of Debs’ conviction and publicly spoke against trade unions.