In the world we live in today most adult’s preoccupation with works starts and ends with their work day. Generally speaking their evenings and weekends are their own, with little interference from their employer. Imagine for a moment a different existence. Imagine a life where your employers grasp is much longer reaching, coming into most of the everyday aspects of your life. Suppose your home is owned by your company and you’re just a renter. Also suppose all of your shopping is done at the company owned store. Maybe your boss built and owns your local church. Let says they’ve even gone as far as to dictate the activities that you are and are not allowed to do. Today this seems odd, even absurd. However, toward the turn of the 19th century and even though much of the first half of the 19th century many of these communities existed. In one such town in the summer of 1894, history was in the making. The little community of Pullman Illinois was created just outside of Chicago by the Pullman Palace Car Company to house its multitude of laborers and their families. The Pullman Palace Car Company was started by George M. Pullman, and eventually made him one of the countries foremost capitalists of his time. However, George Pullman’s rise to history was not solely based upon the success of the company. His actions caused a labor strike of epic proportions, and changed the face of the labor movement as we know it.
The 1890s were volatile economic time, and many companies were on the decline. The Pullman Palace Car Company was one such company, and in an attempt to mitigate some of their lost profits Pullman decided to cut his worker’s wages by approximately 25%. Cuts like these were already detrimental to the families facing them, but when George Pullman levied them, he gave no such reductions on the rents and other costs within the town he’d created for his employees. As such, a group of employees requested a meeting to speak with Pullman about the wage cuts and other issues the workers were facing. Their request was not granted, and Pullman even ordered the men fired for attempting to air their grievances. Due to the lack of response to the workers request they and the other plant workers walked off the job May 11th 1894.
The American Railway Union (ARU) was initially forced into the dispute at Pullman because they represented a portion of the Pullman employees. The president of the union, Eugene V Debs was hesitant to involve the ARU at the onset because so many of the Pullman employees were actually plant workers, not railway workers. However, one they received the support of the railway switchmen (The workers attaching and detaching the rail cars) the ARU voted in favor of a Pullman boycott. Just over a week after the boycott began over 125,000 workers had walked of the job on 29 railways bringing much of the US railway traffic to a halt. All seemed to be going well until an ARU support rally turned violent. At the end of the rally riots broke out and angry railway workers overturned a locomotive that was attached to a U.S. mail train. Debs pleaded with the workers to maintain a peaceful protest, but his attempts where fruitless and riots and violence continued to breakout over the days to come.
Once news of the disrupted mail cart reached Washington DC it was just a matter of time before the federal government stepped in. This finally happened in the form of a federal injunction on July 2nd after the attorney general Richard Olney got the support of President Cleveland and his cabinet. The injunction prohibited ARU leaders from “compelling or inducing” any employees of the affected railroads “to refuse or fail to perform any of their duties,” but it also allowed president Cleveland to send in Federal troops, which he did the following day on July 3rd. Over the next few days anger and backlash to the appearance of federal troops finally intensified to the point of lives being lost. On July 7th a group of national guardsmen were under such heavy attack that they fired into an angry mob killing somewhere between 4 and 30 strikers, and wounding numerous others. At this point Debs attempted to call off the strike, but the railway management would not settle, and instead started hiring nonunion workers. With workers getting back on the lines the railways starting moving again, the strike eventually fizzled out, and the National Guard troops were recalled on July 20th. Upon the reopening of the Pullman Company on August 2nd the strikers there were able to regain their employment, but only with a signed agreement that they would never join a union. Sources estimate that by the end of the strike approximately $80,000,000.00 total had been lost, which in today’s money would be equivalent to about $2.7 billion dollars.
Although the Pullman strike was not a successful it reminded the capitalists of the time that all people have limits, and their laborers were not exempt of this quality. The strike also prompted President Cleveland to make the then grass roots Labor Day celebration into the national holiday that is now celebrated the first Monday in September.
(All though the unofficial holiday started a few years earlier, the first national Labor Day celebration was held September 1894, as a direct result of the Pullman Strike)
(The song 16 ton originally by Tennessee Ernie Ford was written about life in a mining company town, which was very similar to the town the Pullman employees lived in. The song quotes the famous lyrics “Saint Peter don’t you come for me, for I can’t go…I sold my soul to the company store” lamenting the unfortunate reality of many of these laborers)