During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans witnessed many strikes. Their causes varied. Sometimes economic grievances--low pay, and, especially, long hours--led to strikes. Sometimes the conflicts were more subtle, as managers tried to increase their control over the work process. Usually, the basic issue was the right of workers to have unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Typically, strikes ended when the government applied its power against the unions. One strike in particular, the Pullman strike of 1894, was especially important in American perceptions of "the labor problem" of the time. The Pullman strike brought Eugene Debs national attention, and it led directly to his conversion to socialism. The events of the strike led other Americans to begin a quest for achieving more harmonious relations between capital and labor while protecting the public interest.
The Pullman Company, owned by George Pullman, manufactured railroad cars, and by 1894 it operated "first class" sleeping cars on almost every one of the nation's major railroads. The name Pullman was a household word.
Pullman portrait from The Illustrated American (July 14, 1994: 65)
The company's manufacturing plants were in a company-owned town on the outskirts of Chicago. Pullman publicized his company town as a model community filled with contented, well-paid workers. The Pullman workers, however disagreed, especially after the onset of the economic depression that begain in 1893. During that depression, Pullman sought to preserve profits by lowering labor costs. When the firm slashed its work force from 5,500 to 3,300 and cut wages by an average of 25 percent, the Pullman workers struck. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, was trying to organize rail workers all across the country. The Pullman workers joined the ARU, and Debs became the leader of the Pullman strike.
The ARU enjoyed wide influence among the workers who operated trains. To bring pressure on Pullman, the union asked trainmen to refuse to run trains on which Pullman sleeping cars were attached. The union told the railroads that their trains could operate without the Pullman cars, but the railroads insisted that they had contracts with the Pullman Company requiring them to haul the sleeping cars. The result was an impasse, with railroad workers in and around Chicago refusing to operate passenger trains. The conflict was deep and bitter, and it seriously disrupted American railroad service.
"The strike ended with the intervention of the United States Army. The passenger trains also hauled mail cars, and although the workers promised to operate mail trains so long as Pullman cars were not attached, the railroads refused. Pullman and the carriers informed federal officials that violence was occurring and that the mail was not going through. Attorney General Richard Olney, who disliked unions, heard their claims of violence (but not the assurances of local authorities that there was no uncontrolled violence) and arranged to send federal troops to insure the delivery of the mail and to suppress the strike. The union leader, Debs, was jailed for not obeying an injunction that a judge had issued against the strikers." [Quoted from Mansel G. Blackford and K. Austin Kerr, Business Enterprise in American History (3rd. ed.; Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1994):183-84]
The Pullman strike had at least two important consequences.
First, these events convinced Debs that the lives of American workers would never improve unless they controlled governmental power through their strength of numbers in elections. While in jail, Debs read writings by Karl Marx and other socialists, and after he was freed in 1895, Debs became America's most popular Socialist leader.
Second, many Americans were appalled at the class conflict that the strike (and others like it) represented. The events of the Pullman strike led to a deepening awareness that there was a "labor problem" in America, a "labor question" in American politics. As a result of Pullman, reformers energetically began searching for a new way of protecting the "public interest" in the face of the competing interests of labor and capital.
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