Labor History Archives

In 1894 the model town of Pullman became the storm center for one of the classic labor struggles in American social history. What began as a revolt of the Pullman Shops employees against wage cuts and oppressive company practices, escalated into a national railway workers' boycott directed against the handling of trains carrying Pullman cars. It was followed by federal intervention with almost half the U.S. Army at the service of the employers.

The use of army troops brought about a bitter dispute pitting the Governor of Illinois and the Mayor of Chicago against President Grover Cleveland, who had ordered the troops sent in. And that led to the eventual defeat of Cleveland in his bid for renomination by the Democratic Party two years later. In the process of this epic tragedy, people were killed, the American Railway Union was destroyed, the Pullman workers were forced back to work on the company's terms, and George Pullman became a reviled caricature of the hard-hearted and unjust corporate Tycoon---all in order to keep labor in its place.

It was always this way. Troops are used against working people. Why do voters keep electing politicians who do not support them?

Recipe for Disaster

A "recession," as we would call it now, gripped the nation's economy beginning in 1893. Orders for Pullman cars fell off and management began a program of lay-offs and wage cuts. The cuts, applied not to managerial employees but only to the hourly workers, averaged 25 percent.

So what is different today? The economy is relatively stagnent with jobs being moved oversees by big Corporations. To compete of course. Right! And they get a tax break to do it. We can chang this by voting for pro worker politicians. And we can stop the exploitation of workers the same way.

Since Pullman wages were close to the subsistence level, it was a recipe for disaster. The situation was all the more desperate for the workers who lived in the town, because the company refused to lower the rents. Even more galling, the company made sure it collected the rents---right out of the pay! The company’s control of the town (and the people in it) was close to absolute. Even the Green Stone Church was the company’s property. Its use was rented out for religious services for a fee. Pullman expected the church building to earn the usual six percent return on investment. Indeed, George Pullman, expected the church building to be rented by various denominations, their services to operate much like the shifts in his shops.

Pictured a Pullman Porter helping a passenger board the train.

Now all Corporations are not bad. But so many of the big Multinationals are. They are whittling down protections for us from them. They get Corporate Politicians elected who work in the Corporation’s best interest and not ours.

If you think in terms of conspericy, we could say the big Corporations are in league with each other. We know grocery stors administer the prices. That is they don’t really compete with each other but determine the level of profet they want to maintain. If workers want more of the profet, they rase prices paid by the workers. We call this inflation today. Suppose you could tie everything together with interlinking members on different Boards of Directors. Suppose you get control of the Federal Government. Suppose you could get churches tied in with the Corporate Agenda. Naw!!! That’s just plane nuts.

A Money Machine

Everything he put his hand to made money. In 1880 he commenced building the shops and the town on 4,300 acres of land (about six square miles) which he had bought for 800,000 dollars. By 1892 it was valued at 5 million.

Some 12,000 people lived in the town, which ran according to Pullman's rules. No liquor could be sold except at the Florence Hotel, where workers hardly ventured. There were numerous regulations designed to reinforce the town's image of industrious decorum. In 1885 the illustrious Prof. Richard Ely wrote in Harper's Weekly that the power exercised by Bismarck (the unifier of Germany), was "utterly insignificant when compared with the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman."

Declared one Pullman employee:

"We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell."

The Pullman Company Town

The Rev. William H. Carwardine, the Methodist minister in Pullman, characterized the town as a "civilized relic of European serfdom."

Things are different now. We get tested for forign substances which might slow production. For safety of course. While on the job we are pretty much owned. Every aspect of our life is sought to be controled on the job. We must compete. So it is justified.

We do have home life to excape the job. And most people don’t wan’t to do union or political stuff on their own time. So more Corporate Politicians get elected who in turn reduce our freedom, safety and lifestyle.

By the way, political advertisments do not have to be truthfull. We either have to spend a lot of personal time evaluating candidates or rely upon some organization that represents the things we want to make a recommendation after they do the all the work.

George Pullman Explains

Pullman rejected all those who considered him to be a benefactor or a philanthropist in his vision of the town. He described his intentions in practical business terms:

"That such advantages and surroundings made better workmen by removing from them the feeling of discontent and desire for change which so generally characterize the American workman; thus protecting the employer from loss of time and money consequent upon intemperance, labor strikes, and dissatisfaction which generally result from poverty and uncongenial home surroundings."

But Pullman failed to follow his own prescription. His wage cut policy during the winter of 1893-94 certainly induced "poverty and uncongenial home surroundings." Nor could the employees escape to lower rent housing in nearby Roseland, for the company gave employment preference to Pullman residents.

It is the greed factor that determines our lives as workers. The greed of the rulling or wealthy calss and the greed of us working class trying to make it into the wealthy class.

The point is what is life really about? Why do we bother to live? Our Local in Boston still has a 7 hour workday. The world doesn’t come to and end. The 8 hour day didn’t plunge America into chaous. Suppose we worked a 6 hour day. Suppose we passed a law saying 6 hours was the standard work day what do you think would happen? What happened when the 8 hour day was standardized?

Of course today we have lost the 8 hour day in the State of Washington and at the Federal level. What do you think work will be like in 10 or 15 years. Will the Pullman’s of the world take advantage of us workers?

Pictured National Guard fires on Pullman strikers, from Harper's Weekly (1894)

The Union Is Organized

Their recourse was to begin the formation of a local union of the American Railway Union in the Pullman shops. There were only about 3,300 workers left on the payroll in May of 1894, many of them on short hours. A 46-member committee from the union was sent to demand that Pullman rescind the cuts. They were met by Vice-President Thomas J. Wickes, and briefly addressed by George Pullman. He refused any action on the wage cuts, but promised to look into complaints about the behavior of foremen and other matters.

But, the very next day, May 10, 1894, three members of the committee were discharged. A mass meeting of the Pullman workers voted to strike. Picket lines were set up and production halted.

The strike wore on. George Pullman simply left town immediately after the meeting with the committee, heading to his summer home on the New Jersey seashore. In June, a national convention of the American Railway Union (ARU) took place in Chicago.

Unions were created to meet the tremondious and unfair power of Corporate Owners. If the workers strike, let them starve for a while.

Another way of looking at this would be to say in exchange for the prividgle of having a factory certain criteria must be met. And the sky is the limit. Why shouldn’t it be? We do the work that creates the wealth. They move the factory to China. Fine. Sell your productes to the Chinese. And as for the tax breaks these Corporations would not have to pay any taxes because none of their forign made products could be sold in America.

Elect the right people and this shall be so.

Pictured George Pullman

Rev. Carwardine Appeals

The delegates were addressed by the Rev. Carwardine, who described the worsening condition of the Pullman workers, and appealed for the convention to "act quickly, in the name of God and humanity." The convention sent a committee to see Wickes and propose arbitration of the dispute. Wickes refused.

Rebuffed in their efforts to resolve the dispute through arbitration, the ARU tried a new tactic. They voted to refuse to work any train that carried a Pullman car after June 26, unless the company had changed its position on arbitration.

Instead, the General Managers of the 24 railroads terminating in Chicago met with Wickes and agreed unanimously to support the Pullman Company and defy the ARU. Rail workers responded to the boycott call and would surely have prevailed in a matter of days, had not the Federal Government intervened on management's behalf.

Pullman Strike began on May 11, 1894.

Here is our Government again working for management against workers. Did you ever think that a lot of working people identify with “management”. They get a title or want to suck up and suddenly they are “conservitives”. Of course they get screwed along with everybody else but don’t seem to care. So we contenue to elect Pro Corporation politicians.

Friends in High Places

Acting at the behest of his Attorney General, a former railroad attorney named Richard Olney, President Cleveland appointed a special counsel to deal with the strike on the grounds that U.S. mails were being impeded. Indeed they were, because the railroads were deliberately hooking Pullman cars to mail trains. Cleveland's choice for the special counsel was none other than Edward Walker, the attorney for the Milwaukee Railroad. Walker hired 4,000 strikebreakers and made them deputy marshals armed with badge and gun. Great masses of sympathetic workers, particularly in the Chicago area, responded by attacking the trains. There were casualties, trains were torched, and 12,000 federal troops deployed (approximately half the U.S. army), ostensibly to keep the peace, but surely to break the boycott.

One thing is certain. If things keep going the way they are in America, we shall have social unrest sometime in the future. It is not a matter of if but when. And what will people do? Will they stick together? Side with the Blackwater Mercinaries or with other working people? What would you do?

The Strike Ends

An injunction was secured under which ARU president Eugene V.Debs and other leaders were sentenced to jail. On July 18, Pullman announced it would reopen the shops and hire only persons who would sign a "yellow dog" contract promising never to join a union while a Pullman employee. Thus ended the great Pullman Strike, but there were unexpected aftereffects. While serving his time in the Woodstock, Ill., jail, Debs decided that labor needed to win political power to match that of the employers. Accordingly, he became the Socialist Party's presidential candidate, receiving almost a million votes in 1912.

The dreaded “S” word. What do you think Socialism is? Can you name a Socialist country. Not China, it is a dictatorship. Not the USSR, it was a dictatorship too. Is putting people on entitlement programs serve Socialist ends or Facist ends?

Here is a definition of Socialism from the American Heratige Dictionary:

1. Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

 2. The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved.

Here is a definition of Fascism:

1. often Fascism

 a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.

 b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.

2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.

Amazon Books

Here is a definition of Capitalism:

An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.

Here is a definition of Democratic Socialism:

Democratic socialism is a broad political movement propagating the ideals of socialism within the context of a democratic system. In many cases, its adherents promote the ideal of socialism as an evolutionary process resulting from legislation enacted by a parliamentary democracy. (A good entry on Democratic Socialism)

Now the question to ponder is where America fits into the scheme of things?

A young attorney for one of the railroads was outraged by the role of the General Managers. He quit the job, later to become a famous lawyer in the service of labor. His name was Clarence Darrow. Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld was incensed at Cleveland for putting the federal government at the service of the employers, and for rejecting Altgeld's plan to use his state militia to keep order, instead of federal troops. As the leader of the Illinois delegation to the Democratic Party Convention in 1896, Altgeld used his influence and blocked the renomination of Cleveland as the presidential candidate.

So there you have it. How did we get the things we are now losing under the Neoconservitive movement in the U.S.? What is our history? Are we more aligned with Capitolists or some form of Socialism? If you said Capitolism, who benefits from your beliefe?

Kensington, Ill.,

August 17, 1894.

To His Excellency, the Governor of the State of Illinois:

We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving. Our places have been filled with workmen from all over the United States, brought here by the Pullman Company, and the surplus were turned away to walk the streets and starve also. There are over 1600 families here in destitution and want, and their condition is pitiful. We have exhausted all the means at our command to feed them, and we now make this appeal to you as a last resource. Trusting that God will influence you in our behalf and that you will give this your prompt attention, we remain,

Yours in distress,



Discuss this on the job. Discuss it with family and friends. Read the non-corporate news form the links on our website at . Educate others every chance you get.

"The overwhelming majority of blacks are workers, and organized labor is the home of working men and women … so blacks and labor are natural allies."

A. Philip Randolph

IBEW Local 46 ~ 19802 62nd Ave S, Kent, WA 98032 ~ Phone: 253-395-6500 ~ (Toll free) 1-866-651-4600