The Pullman Strike and it's effect on American Society
During the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th, the nation of America saw quite a few strikes. These worker uprisings had a wide array of reasons, such as response to low pay, long hours, and response to employer's attempts to exert even more power than they already had upon the workers of the nation. Usually, the basic issue behind these strikes was the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain to improve their working conditions. The Pullman strike, led by the charismatic Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union, was one such attempt at asserting some worker influence and control over the economic process. Though it failed in the short term, the events of the strike were instrumental in creating the atmosphere of social reform which lead many Americans to seek solutions to the problems and issues that had been brewing over the years between the working and capitalist class.
The strike was started by a group of workers under the employment of Pullman Company, a Corporation owned by one George Pullman and based in the factory town of Pullman, Illinois (now a borough of Chicago). The company manufactured rail cars, particularly luxury sleeping cars. Basically every major American rail line carried these "Pullman" cars, and consequently the brand became a household name to virtually everyone in the United States. Pullman, who seemed to have had an odd obsession with naming things after himself, liked to brag about how his town was an industrial utopia filled to the brim with happy, well-paid, and well-fed workers. However , if one was to go straight to the workers for an opinion on the state of things there, they would beg to differ. Alot. Things had been especially bad for them during the depression, and Pullman, in an effort to keep profits up, decided to cut the plant's workforce from 5,500 to 3,300 and reduce pay by a full quarter.
The Pullman workers decided that enough was enough, and on May 10, 1894, they voted to go on strike. Eugene V. Debs and the ARU quickly assimilated them into their own group, and subsequently staged a 150,000 person strong boycott against all major rail lines carrying Pullman cars, refusing to handle them. Though the boycott was centered primarily around Chicago, it disrupted travel and mail-service throughout the United States, and put the people at Pullman and the rail companies under great pressure to capitulate.
Eventually, after much pleading from the Nation's business interests (who were losing millions to the strike) a Federal Judge decided to make a final decision on the case, not suprisingly siding with industry. Citing stories of striker violence reported to him by the Rail companies (but flat-out denied by local authorities) as reason, he issued an injunction calling for the immediate end of the strike and boycott.
When approached with the court order, Debs and the ARU refused to go along, causing then president Grover Cleveland to send in the army and put the strike down. The judge then had Debs and other leaders of the ARU put in prison for their actions.
So, the Pullman strike came to an end, and upon the jailing of all their leaders, the ARU completely disintegrated. Fighting over labour issues died down afterward, on account of the Judge's injunction basically making strikes illegal. The issue of class and worker's rights didn't go away, however, and some time later it would come back in the form of the Muckraker and Populist movements.
While in Jail, Debs was introduced to, and became enthralled with, the writings and theories of Karl Marx. He applied Marx's way of thinking to the American labour situation, and upon his release from jail became one of the most prominent socialist leaders of the early 20th century. He later wrote the following about the events at Pullman:
<-2>THE GREATEST INDUSTRIAL BATTLE IN HISTORY
The Chicago strike was in many respects the grandest industrial battle in history, and I am prouder of my small share in it than of any other act of my life.
Men, women and children were on the verge of starvation at the "model city' of Pullman. They had produced the fabulous wealth of the Pullman corporation, but they, poor souls, were compelled to suffer the torment of hunger pangs in the very midst of the abundance their labor had created.
A hundred and fifty thousand railroad employes, their fellow members in the American Railway Union, sympathized with them, shared their earnings with them, and after trying in every peaceable way they could conceive of to touch the flint heart of the Pullman company every overture being rejected, every suggestion denied, every proposition spurned with contempt - they determined not to pollute their hands and dishonor their manhood by handling Pullman cars and contributing to the suffering and sorrow of their brethren and their wives and babes. And rather than do this they laid down their tools in a body, sacrificed their situations and submitted to persecution, exile and the blacklist; to idleness, poverty, crusts and rags, and I shall love and honor these moral heroes to my latest breath.
There was more of human sympathy, of the essence of brotherhood, of the spirit of real Christianity in this act than in all the hollow pretenses and heartless prayers of those disciples of mammon who cried out against it, and this act will shine forth in increasing splendor long after the dollar worshipers have mingled with the dust of oblivion.
Had the carpenter of Nazareth been in Chicago at the time He would have been on the side of the poor, the heavy-laden and sore at heart, and He would have denounced their oppressors and been sent to prison for contempt of court under President Cleveland's administration
President Cleveland says that we were put down because we had acted in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust law of 1890. Will he kindly state what other trusts were proceeded against and what capitalists were sentenced to prison during his administration?
Excerpts from Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1908):204-05