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Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Pullman Strike, May 11, 1894

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Today in 1894, thousands of workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago, Illinois went on strike. The ensuing battle between workers and the corporation that employed them gave fame to the modern organized labor movement in the United States, changed the way the Federal government reacted to national strikes and contributed to the re-election defeat of a sitting President.

The United States was in the grip of a near depression-level recession in 1893 and 1894. As a result, George Pullman’s company, which made railroad passenger cars, saw a decline in orders for its products. In an effort to maintain profitability and save the company, Pullman cut hourly workers’ wages by an average of 25 percent. Managerial salaries were unaffected. At this time, many of the company’s workers lived in housing they rented from the Pullman Company. As wages fell, the rent remained the same. Employees had the option of moving to other areas, but the company gave employment preference to workers who rented Pullman houses. A local Methodist minister characterized the situation as a “civilized relic of European serfdom.”

The winter of 1893-94 saw the workers of the Pullman Company pushed to their limits. Many of them formed a local union of the American Railway Union so they could bargain collectively with the ownership. A 46-member union committee met with the Vice President of the company and demanded that the wage cuts be rescinded and that some other workplace issues be addressed. The Vice President refused to consider the wage demand but did promise to look into the other issues. The next day, May 10, 1894, three of the committee members were fired from the jobs. Negotiations were over.

The local union members met and voted to strike. The walkout occurred on May 11. Several hundred hourly employees continued to work, but they were dismissed as the production halted and the company locked its doors. In June, the American Railway Union held its annual convention in Chicago. They offered to negotiate an end to the strike, but the company refused. In response, the union stated that, after June 28, no member of their national union would work on any train that carried a Pullman car. A meeting of 24 railroad managers soon thereafter resulted in a statement of support for Pullman and condemnation of the union.

The strike would have effectively shut down the rail system in the United States had it not been for what happened next. President Grover Cleveland appointed a special counsel to deal with the strikes, claiming that transportation of the mail was being threatened. The special counsel hired 4,000 strikebreakers and deputized them, essentially creating a legal army of thugs. Workers in the Chicago area responded by attacking trains and burning some of them, resulting in casualties. Pressed to end the strike before it further injured the economy, President Cleveland ordered the deployment of 12,000 US Army soldiers, half the strength of the active forces at that time. Their stated mission was to keep the peace, but their real goal was to break the boycott of Pullman cars and end the strike by whatever means necessary.

On July 18th, the Pullman Company reopened its doors but would only hire employees who signed contracts promising to never join a union while in the company’s employ. The strike was over.

Illinois Governor John Altgeld was outraged by President Cleveland’s unprecedented use of federal power in ending the strike. Altgeld had wanted to use the state militia to keep order but was shouted down by federal authorities. In 1896, the Governor led the Illinois delegation to the Democratic Party Convention. There, he used the influence of his state to ensure that Grover Cleveland was not re-nominated as his party’s Presidential candidate.

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