Friday, May 11, 2007
The Pullman Strike of 1894
By Richard E. Noble
The immediate cause of the Pullman strike was the firing of three workers who lived in the town of Pullman. The town of Pullman was built and operated by Mr. Pullman to house and service the many workers of his Pullman Palace Train Car Company. A committee of residents had come to Mr. Pullman to discuss the possibility of lowering the rents within the town due to his recent layoffs and salary reductions at the factory. In response to a depressed economy and poor business profits, Pullman had laid off more than fifty percent of the factory workers and cut the pay of the remaining workers by 25%. Pullman told the residents that paying their rents had nothing to do with the conditions at the factory. He refused to negotiate or discuss the issue and ended the meeting by firing three of the members of the renter’s committee.
The three men who were fired were members of the newly established American Railway Union. A thirty-eight year old ex-railroad fireman by the name of Eugene V. Debs had established the union in 1893. The A.R.U. was an “industrial” union established in opposition to the idea of the “craft” union. The A.R.U. was a union operating for all the workers of “white” parentage and not just “white craftsmen”. The A.R.U. called for a strike of the Pullman factory. Pullman who wasn’t making much money at the factory at that moment anyway, simply closed down the factory entirely. The A.R.U. then called on its 150,000 members to boycott Pullman cars throughout the system. This did not improve Mr. Pullman’s attitude or temperament. He demanded that troops be brought in. Many local militias were called out, but many of the members of these groups were friends and relatives of the strikers. They felt that they were there to keep the peace, not take a side in a business dispute. In Winnemucca, Nevada the militia stood by idly as many Pullman cars were relieved of some of their oranges and coal by the ranks of the unemployed.
Pullman then contacted his friends at the General Managers Association. This was a semi-secret organization of about twenty-four railroad owners operating in or through Chicago. They called Richard Olney, the Attorney General to President Grover Cleveland. Olney asked Cleveland to send in Federal troops. Cleveland demurred on the grounds that nothing of a Federal nature was going on. Olney was a railroad attorney before he became attorney General and he was on the board of several railroads. He protested the president’s charge. He argued that the railroads were, in effect, interstate highways. Disrupting service on an interstate highway was a “public nuisance”. He further charged that 150,000 workers acting jointly in several different states to obstruct a man’s business was against the Sherman Anti-trust Act. It was a “conspiracy” acting in restraint of trade. Considering that the Sherman Anti-trust Act was established in 1890 to act as a brake on big business and its tendencies to monopolization, this was a daring, new twist on the interpretation of the law. So far this Sherman Anti-trust Act had not dared to be used against a single big business. He further charged that since railroads carried federal mail, to obstruct a railroad was to interfere in the operations of the federal government, and a misdemeanor.
Olney got Pullman an “injunction” against the obstruction of the federal mail. A Federal Marshal went to a disturbance site and read the injunction to the strikers. The strikers didn’t take the news well. In fact, they ignored the injunction and Marshal Arnold and others. This slight to Marshal Arnold’s authority encouraged him to exaggerate his report. He dispatched back to Olney the notion that chaos had ensued, trains were being shoved off the track and mail was being destroyed. Observers at the scene and the results of an investigation after the Pullman strike had ended, substantiated Marshal Arnold’s fabrication and his exaggeration of the conditions at the time.
President Cleveland ordered troops from Fort Sheridan to the area. In the mean time Pullman added 2600 to 3000 emergency Deputy Marshals to the ranks. Chicago Superintendent of police said when questioned by the after-the-fact federal investigating committee, that these new “deputies” were nothing more than thieves, thugs and ex-convicts.
Governor Altgeld was extremely upset with the arrival of federal troops in his state. He challenged the constitutionality of President Cleveland’s decision. The Federal troop’s presence alone had caused several disturbances. Governor Altgeld dispatched 5000 state militia to quell the riots and keep the peace that had been upset by the Federal troops. The strikers attacked one of the Illinois regiments and a battle ensued. Twenty to thirty were killed that first day and the fighting went on with similar results for a few more days. Hundred of trains and buildings were burnt. Many people were killed and injured. More and more troops were sent in by both the State and the Federal Government. Very shortly there were a minimum of fourteen thousand troops in the area.
Olney had seven hundred union leaders arrested. Debs was arrested twice; once on conspiracy, and the second time for contempt of court. The conspiracy charge was eventually dropped, but the contempt trial became famous. In effect, when the union did not comply with the injunction, it was in contempt of the court order. Clarence Darrow defended Debs on the contempt charge. He lost. Debs went to prison.
The case went all the way to the supreme court, “in re Debs”. It was decided by the supreme court that an injunction could be used against a union; that a union could be held responsible as conspirators acting in restraint of trade; that the Federal Government could use troops in protecting interstate trade and obstruction of U. S. mail.
Mark Hanna, famous power broker, presidential advisor to McKinley, and wealthy businessman, called George Pullman “a damned idiot”. To folks who were sympathetic to Pullman and suggested that his goals at the town of Pullman were philanthropic, Hanna suggested that they should go and live in Pullman and compare how the rent, gas, water and grocery bills compared to everywhere else.
After the violence had erupted and all the federal and state troops had arrived, Debs called on Samuel Gompers to intercede on behalf of the strikers with the General Managers Association. Gompers refused and made a blanket statement criticizing all parties involved. This put the final nail in the Pullman strike coffin.*
*Works used in this essay: “Attorney for the Damned”, Clarence
Darrow in the courtroom, Arthur Weinberg; “The Rise of Industrial
America”, Page Smith; “American Economic History” Harold
Underwood Faulkner; “A History of American Labor”, Joseph G.
Rayback; “Leading Cases on the Constitution”, Bartholomew;
“Roughneck”, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter