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Pullman Strike

The Pullman Strike: The Railroad Crisis of 1894

Background Information

The Railroad Crisis of 1894 was a strike that originated in Chicago yet affected the entire railway industry.   This strike, the Pullman Strike, was a union of workers who were discontented with both living and business conditions provided by George Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company.   The strike covered two-thirds of the United States and affected not only railway workers involved, but also the people who were dependent on railway transportation.   The repercussions, in most ways, favored George Pullman granting him the opportunity to reconstruct and beautify his town and rehire new employees for his company.   The strikers, however, were worse off than when the strike began.   Both sides suffered dramatically and most were faced with consequences that hindered job-finding and employee-hiring for a long time after.   In the end, neither the workers nor George Pullman won.   Most strikers were left jobless, and George Pullman was unveiled as an unjust, selfish man.   Both Pullman's company and the U.S. government were left with debts of astronomical amounts (Lindsey 335-44).

George Pullman

Born on March 3, 1831, George Pullman was raised with nine other children on both very little income and education.   As he grew up, he became involved in different business industries, which sparked his interest in and gave him knowledge for his future palace-car industry (Lindsey 19).   Pullman, frustrated and annoyed by his own experiences with sleeping cars, was the inventor of the Pullman Sleeping Car and the founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company (Lindsey 20).   Founded in 1867, the Pullman Palace Car Company employed thousands of workers; each one, according to Pullman's policy, "possessed the requisite expertness" that he wanted to run his company (Lindsey 21).   Although his business was very profitable and successful, his unfair and harsh treatment of his employees brought about a huge change to the way his company would run in the future.

The Pullman Palace Car Company

The Pullman Palace Car Company as well as the town of Pullman was established in Chicago.   The industrial community strived for a harmonic combination of capital and labor.   The purpose of his town was to raise the quality of the worker/resident by reducing drunkenness and strengthening family life, which allowed for higher ambition and motivation.   No bars or brothels were allowed within the town.   Pullman provided homes, tenements, schools, churches, a cultural arcade, a hotel, a library, post offices, a bank, and sewage and sanitation for the residents.   Although these provisions were convenient for the employees and their families, they were not allowed to own the land on which they lived.  The rent that they paid was taken directly from their paychecks and was up to 10 to 20 percent higher than the surrounding areas.  Employees who could not afford the rent or had the desire to live outside the city they ran the risk of forfeiting their jobs based on Pullman's policy of job preference given to the employees who lived within his town.   Not only were families being deprived of good living conditions, they were also being deprived of their right to privacy which was being destroyed by the omnipresent corporation that owned everything and closely tracked the actions of its people (Sciabarra).   This stronghold and control that Pullman had on his workers was unavoidable, for the employees were desperate for work during the nation's depression.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was a success before the onset of the depression in 1893.   The World Columbian Exposition earned the Palace Car Company four million dollars in surplus.   This extra car production left a three-year supply on hand.   Then the time of crisis hit.   The depression of 1893 began in the late 1880's, beginning in the southern states where there was an agricultural crisis.   It did not spread to urban areas until 1893.   The spread of depression, also affected the Pullman Palace Car Company.   Due to the major economic crisis, George Pullman was forced to preserve profits by lowering labor costs.   Pullman also cut wages by 25%.   Pullman reduced the current population of workers from 5,500 to 3,300 to help save profits for his company.   Due to these drastic cuts, including an overabundance in supplies and absence of work, Pullman's Detroit plant was forced to close; leaving 3,400 of the 4,500 workers unemployed.   After the Depression, the demand for railroad cars was paralyzed and there were no contracts at all for the months of August and September of 1893.   Although these areas of Pullman's company experienced major cutbacks, none of them suffered as much as the car construction department, leaving less than 20% of the employees engaged in this work.   Prices for car construction were reduced by an average of 25%, as were wages, yet Pullman refused to lower the cost of rent in his town.   Due to the depression, it was claimed that the workers absorbed $60,000 of the losses while the company only absorbed $52,000 in loss.   With all of these cutbacks to employment and wages, "workers began to organize during early April 1894."   The employees began to join the American Railway Union (Sciabarra).   This was the beginning of the Pullman Strike.

The Strike Begins

The American Railway Union (ARU) began in 1893.   It was an industry-oriented union. In April, 1894, hoping to compromise with managers, increasing numbers of angry Pullman employees began joining the newly formed union.   After many stalled negotiations with George Pullman, ARU supported the strikers by boycotting the use of Pullman cars.   On May 9, 1894, a grievance committee of 45 workers pleaded for a compromise between their wages and rents.   Pullman responded, claiming business conditions did not warrant a wage increase and that rents had nothing to do with wages.   On May 10, three men from the grievance committee were fired.   This conflict increased opposition between the managers and the workers, convincing the workers to vote for a strike.   The strike developed quickly into a nationwide railroad strike involving 150,000 workers.   On May 11, three-thousand employees from Pullman's plant refused to work due to rumors of lockout.   That evening, the Pullman Palace Car Company closed its doors. As a result of the strike, relief efforts were set up by many organizations as a means of providing the hungry and impoverished Pullman citizens with food, money, and shelter.   Also, by the middle of June, large numbers of people began to leave the workers' city searching for new places of employment (Sciabarra).   This peaceful period during the strike lasted for some time, allowing strike leaders to gather more followers and to make more of an attempt to get through to those at the head of the company.

By June 12, the strike remained unsettled and the conditions worsened.   Four hundred representatives from the ARU met to discuss the strike with various Pullman employees.   The outcome of the convention established that if, by June 26, no settlement had been made between the Pullman managers and the workers, then the members of the ARU would refuse to operate Pullman cars and equipment; interrupting a primary source of Pullman's income as well as causing nationwide railway disturbances (Sciabarra).   The leader of the ARU was Eugene V. Debs.   He was the voice of the employees.   His goal, along with those involved with the ARU, was to unite all railroad workers as an effort to displace pockets of power within the system.   By June 26, no settlement had been reached and so the boycott began.   In four days, nearly 50,000 men from around the country had left their jobs, despite the nation's depression.   A large portion of those who remained and ran the railway systems (as established at the Chicago convention) refused to run trains that pulled Pullman cars, no matter what the cargo the train carried (Horger).   This boycott sparked talk of bringing charges against ARU for interfering with mail, business, and trade.   Courts soon made it illegal for those on strike to trespass on railroad property or prevent other railroad workers from doing their jobs.   As a result of this boycott, on June 28, President Cleveland ordered troops to watch over the Chicago strikers (Sciabarra).   This infiltration of soldiers and U.S. officials angered the strikers and caused an upheaval of violence to break out nationwide.

With the troops being sent to enforce a code of peace, the peaceful strike turned into a deadly strike with uncontrollable violence.   Workers damaged railroad property, "spiked and misplaced switches, removed rails, crippled interlocking systems, derailed cars, and blockaded tracks" (Sciabarra).  These outbreaks encouraged attacks from the troops and brought injuries and death to many people.   There were no intentions of the strike becoming violent, and fortunately the attacks only lasted for a short period of time.   The end of the strike came early when Debs was arrested, leaving the ARU without a leader.   The strikers had been overtaken by the federal troops and the state militia, bringing an end to the boycott.   With this event, the troops were able to forcibly break up the mobs and restart railroad traffic (Sciabarra).   Although the boycotting was over and the strike was almost resolved, the employees and managers, as well as the nation's officials, put an end to the huge loss the country had faced as a result of the strike.  

Effects of the Strike

After the strike, huge amounts of money had been lost.   The railroad companies lost $80 million in business and an extra $6 million in property damages.   Four hundred thousand dollars were spent on law enforcement charges.   The railroad employees lost about $1 million in salaries and bonuses.   From a testimony presented to the United States Strike Commission, "the total loss sustained by the railroads centering at Chicago was reckoned at $5,360,000" (Lindsey 335).   Despite the huge sums of money that were lost, the most important loss was the deaths of 34 people.  

The intended peaceful strike backfired on those involved and brought more damage than good to not only the railway industry but also to the employees and to the nation as a whole.   Although Pullman rehired 2,000 of his original employees and an additional 800 others, he was scarred by his brutality and greediness towards his workers during the time of depression (Sciabarra).   Not all of the strikers "were refused work or blacklisted" after the strike ended (Lindsey 337).   However, many of them were left without jobs, bringing themselves and their families under worse living conditions that before the strike began.   The strike did bring about change for both parties involved, but not much positive change was done for the good of either side.

Annotated Bibliography of Works Consulted

Brown, David. "The Pullman Strike of 1894." The Stan Iverson Memorial Library & Anarchist Archives. (26 Jan 2004).

The Stan Iverson Memorial Library and Anarchist archives gives a comphresive time line illustrating key dates and events. Beginning with the summary of the events leading up to the strike, to a brief summary of the aftermath.

Horger, Mark. "Pullman Strike." 1912: Competing Visions for America. Ohio Historical Society. (26 Jan 2004).

Although this website is mainly concerned with the political elections of 1912, the author's incorporate the Pullman Strike of 1894, which involved the socialist political leader Eugene V. Debs.   The cite gives a brief summary of the labor issues in the late 1800's and the issues related to the Pullman Strike.

Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike . Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1942.

Almont Lindsey wrote this book as a source of facts on the Pullman Strike.   He describes in detail each aspect of the strike, while providing quotes from people who were involved in or present at the time of this national crisis.

Sciabarra, Chris Mattew. "Labor History and Revisionism: A Libertarian Analysis of the Pullman Strike." Libertarian Alliance. http://www. (21 Jan 2004).

Sciabarra offers a vivid description of the Pullman Strike.   The author starts out with a thorough description of Pullman's adventures and then offers a complete synopsis of the strike.

Related Links

A Time Line of The Pullman Strike

"The Parable of Pullman"

The Pullman Strike: Illinois Periodical Online

The Pullman Strike: Ohio Historical Society

Labor History and Revisionism