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The Pullman Strike of 1894

The first national strike in U.S. history involved more than 150,000 persons in 27 different states and territories. The nation's railway system was paralyzed by the strike. And, for the first time in U.S. history, federal troops were called in against the wishes of an individual state.

The Pullman Strike centered around the Pullman Palace Car Company, and the company-owned town of Pullman, located just outside of Chicago. After the Panic of 1893, the company cut wages by up to 25 per cent, but did not lower rents or prices in the town. To make matters even worse, Pullman workers were required to live and shop in the town, so they did not have the option of finding cheaper lodgings. A group of Pullman workers formed a committee that, on May 7, went to company owner George Pullman to ask for rent and price reductions. Not only did Pullman refuse, he fired three of the committee workers. On May 10, workers walked off the job; the plant closed the next day.

Workers probably expected Pullman to give in after a few days, but such was not to be. Several weeks went by, and Pullman refused to budge. As their financial situations got steadily worse, the strikers became more and more desperate. By the end of June many of the strikers may have been ready to return to work, but things suddenly began getting worse.

While the strike was in progress, the American Railway Union (ARU) convened a meeting in Chicago, then the center of the nation's rail traffic. Since the Pullman workers were affiliated with the ARU, the union offered to send in arbitrators. When the offer was refused, union leader Eugene V. Debs declared that the ARU would stop handling any train with a Pullman car on June 26 if the company had not begun negotiations with its workers.

When the appointed date came without any sign of company movement, ARU switchmen did indeed begin refusing to switch any train with a Pullman car. The General Managers Association, which represented the railroad industry, responded by firing all switchmen who refused to do their job. Before long most of the 24 rail lines in Chicago were paralyzed and the nation's rail traffic was at a virtual stand still, as ARU members across the country joined in sympathy with the Pullman workers.

On July 2, U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney issued a federal injunction (called the Omnibus Indictment) against leaders of the ARU, preventing them from "...compelling or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees to refuse or fail to perform duties... ." The injunction also forbade the ARU leadership from having any contact with its members, effectively outlawing union activity of any kind.

The injunction, combined with potential delays of mail trains, led President Grover Cleveland to send federal troops into Chicago in order to restore order, despite repeated protests from Illinois Governor John Altgeld.

federal troops escort a train into a Chicago rail yard

On July 4, federal troops from Fort Sheridan were escorting a train into Chicago when they were met by an angry mob hurling fireworks and manning barricades. The mob grew over the next few days, and the level of violence increased accordingly. On July 6, rioters set fires that ultimately destroyed 700 rail cars and caused $340,000 in damages to the South Chicago Panhandle yards. On July 7, after being assaulted by rioters, a contingent of guardsmen were forced to fire into a crowd; at least 12 people were killed, and dozens more were wounded.

Despite the violence (or perhaps because of it), the strike had already begun to wane by this time. In addition, Debs and four other ARU leaders had been arrested for violating the indictment, and the ARU had been unsuccessful in trying to get other unions to stage sympathetic strikes. Pullman workers gradually started returning to work, and by August 2 the Pullman Palace Car Company was up and running again. For all their efforts and sacrifices, the workers never got any of the concessions they had fought for, and union activity remained effectively illegal for several more years.

SEE ALSO
Chicago
George Pullman
Eugene V. Debs
Richard Olney
President Grover Cleveland
John Altgeld

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This page was last updated on June 11, 2017.