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1894 Pullman Strike

The Pullman strike/boycott of 1894 was one of the largest, most dramatic, and significant labor conflicts of the late 19th century. Although the Army became involved in other strike duty in the succeeding years of the century, the best-known instance was in the Pullman, or railway, strike of 1894 which, though centered in Chicago, also affected other parts of the country.

Replacing workers with technology, routinization of tasks, breaking the unions of skilled workers, greater superintendency, and controlling recruitment represented only one side of the story of the transforming of the American shop floor. The period 1880 to 1930 also witnessed endless attempts to effect labor peace through the building of good will between managers and workers. In many respects, this represents a continuity of practice. Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell early in the 19th century, for example, had attempted to create wholesome environments for textile workers, and they offer the first examples of industrial capitalist benevolence (and of this shortsightedness and failure). Building model company towns remained an ideal late into the century, and one famous case provided the initial site of another monumental labor battle of the age of corporate ascendance.

George Pullman achieved prominence in the 1870s for the manufacture of his sumptuous railway sleeping and dining cars. He attracted attention for creating in the 1880s a seemingly model community in south Chicago for families of the men who labored in his shops fabricating Pullman cars. Harmony in his well-landscaped and complete company town, though, was just an appearance.

In June of 1894, Pullman announced a reduction in wages due to a severe economic downturn that had begun a year earlier. Employees of the company walked off their jobs in protest. Pullman had refused to lower rents in the already high cost lodging that he provided his workers, so the wage cuts represented a serious hardship. Pullman reacted to the strike by closing down the plant, content to draw revenue from the leasing of existing Pullman cars. Soon faced with eviction and under increasing economic duress, Pullman workers appealed for assistance to the American Railway Union (ARU) and its young charismatic leader, Eugene Victor Debs.

The ARU had been formed the previous year, when some 50 railroad delegates inaugurated the organization as an industrial union, embracing workers in almost all railroad crafts, at a meeting in Chicago's Ulrich's Hall on June 20, 1893. Led by a former official of the conservative Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Eugene V. Debs, the more inclusive and radical ARU had a membership of about 150,000 railroad workers by 1894. Debs warily agreed to help and, in support of the Pullman strikers, he called on ARU men to refuse to operate trains with Pullman cars. In response to Pullman workers' pleas for help, the ARU voted to boycott the company by refusing to work on any train that carried a Pullman car. In the strike and boycott that followed, the ARU went against the industry's powerful General Managers' Association (representing some 24 rail lines), much of the nation's mainstream press, and state and federal governments.

Thus began the Pullman boycott of early July 1894, a job action that would bring the nation's rail traffic and commerce to a halt. Thousands of armed deputies and federal troops battled strikers, while the courts issued injunction after injunction, making it legally impossible for strike leaders to continue the strike. Debs and other leaders were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for defiance of court orders. The Pullman strike and boycott was marked by dramatic events that garnered worldwide attention: fighting between workers and police, the use of federal troops and injunctions to stem the insurrection, the jailing of key leaders, and ultimately the defeat of the Pullman workers.

President Grover Cleveland's order hastily putting troops in Chicago against the wishes of Governor John Peter Altgeld provided that they should execute the orders and processes of federal courts, prevent obstructions to the movement of the mails, and generally enforce U.S. laws. In fact, they put down the strike. Other governors also protested the use of federal troops in their states. Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, who commanded the 2,000 federal troops in Chicago (and who had advised against using them in the strike), did not use his men effectively, perhaps at first because he broke them up in small detachments in support of policemen and marshals at scattered points. New orders, however, required him to concentrate his forces and authorized him to fire upon rioters after a proper warning. A small company of Regular troops under his command did fire upon a mob in Hammond, Indiana, on July 8, 1894, when about to be overwhelmed by many times their own number. At least one rioter was killed and a dozen or more rioters were wounded in this action.

The violence was actually much less in 1894 than in 1877, but with only about 28,000 officers and enlisted men in the Army, Schofield, the Commanding General, reported that while his troops performed their duty "promptly and effectively," the situation taxed them "nearly to the limit." He might have added that, at least in California, both sailors and marines were used. The United States Supreme Court unanimously sustained President Cleveland's actions in Chicago during the 1894 strike, with the result that a legal precedent was set for using federal troops within a state without its consent.

When it was over, Pullman palace car workers had lost their battle, the ARU was destroyed, and Eugene Debs was on the road to becoming a socialist. The loss of the strike had a sobering effect on the labor movement and gave weight to leaders such as Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, who advocated greater caution. The Pullman upheaval convinced business leaders of the folly and costliness of trying to engender labor loyalty and diligence by building model company towns. The events of July 1894, however, did not stop manufacturers from seeking peace on the shop floor through other benevolent means.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:34:33 Zulu