125 Years After the Pullman Uprising, We Could Be on the Verge of Another Sympathy Strike Wave

Ryan Smith

In 2019, workers across the U.S. are proving that the legacy of the Great Pullman strike is still alive today. (Wikipedia Commons)

Roam­ing the sleepy streets of Pull­man on Chicago’s South­east Side, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a time when it was the chaot­ic cen­ter of work­er strug­gle in the Unit­ed States.

Many of the hand­some red brick homes in the cen­ter of Pull­man — once a bustling com­pa­ny town and now a Chica­go neigh­bor­hood — are occu­pied and well-main­tained, but the shut­tered lux­u­ry hotel hasn’t host­ed a guest in decades, the skele­tal fac­to­ry build­ings are locked behind a chain-link fence, and the hands of the derelict clock­tow­er that helped gov­ern the work­ing lives of thou­sands of men and women remain frozen in time.

But in the spring of 1894, a com­pa­ny-wide walk­out at the site’s fac­to­ries snow­balled into a two-month long nation­wide sym­pa­thy strike” that, at its peak, gal­va­nized as many as 250,000 men and women in 27 states and ter­ri­to­ries. A sym­pa­thy strike, or sol­i­dar­i­ty action, is when work­ers strike in sup­port of oth­ers involved in a labor dis­pute in a dif­fer­ent com­pa­ny, but often in the same or a relat­ed industry.

Lat­er known as the Pull­man Strike, the strug­gle became the largest-ever orga­nized work stop­page and the most sig­nif­i­cant demon­stra­tion of union strength in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, up until the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

In 2019, 125 years after the mon­u­men­tal strike at Pull­man, the area’s phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture con­tin­ues to crum­ble. But the revi­tal­iza­tion of sym­pa­thy strikes and mass labor orga­niz­ing all across the coun­try in recent years — from teacher walk­outs to the work stop­page threat by flight atten­dants that helped end the gov­ern­ment shut­down — sug­gests that the lega­cy of the Great Pull­man Strike remains very much alive today.

In a fiery speech to a group of labor lead­ers and vis­i­tors at the 125th-anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the Great Pull­man Strike on May 11, Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son said, Look at how unions band­ed togeth­er dur­ing the Pull­man Strike. The pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Fed­er­a­tion of Labor said at the time. We all feel that in fight­ing any bat­tle against the Pull­man Com­pa­ny, we’re aim­ing at the very head and front of monop­oly and plutocracy.’

This is again a time when peo­ple have a grow­ing con­scious­ness of the rul­ing class and those with an insa­tiable need for more mon­ey, pow­er and con­trol,” she con­tin­ued. Work­ing peo­ple are just now under­stand­ing the pow­er they have when they stand togeth­er and claim our share of the prof­its we create.”

Well-wish­ing feudalism”

The Great Pull­man Strike was like­ly a shock to out­side observers who had vis­it­ed what appeared to them to be a cap­i­tal­ist utopia.

Here, indeed, seems to be the com­ing par­adise of labor,” read one an arti­cle in an 1882 edi­tion of The Rail­way Age Month­ly. The Lon­don Times declared Pull­man the most per­fect town in the world.”

George Pull­man, the town’s mas­ter­mind, cer­tain­ly saw it that way.

The indus­tri­al­ist made his for­tune in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry by cor­ner­ing the mar­ket on upscale train cars for the wealthy at a time when the rail­road indus­try held a stran­gle­hold over the economy.

In 1877, Pull­man built a lux­u­ri­ous man­sion on swanky Prairie Avenue amidst Chicago’s elite, like depart­ment store mag­nate Mar­shall Field. Three years lat­er, Pull­man pur­chased 4,000 acres of swamp-cov­ered land near Lake Calumet and invest­ed an esti­mat­ed $5 mil­lion to build a series of fac­to­ries, along with hun­dreds of hous­es to be rent­ed to up to 10,000 work­ers. He also approved the con­struc­tion of school build­ings, parks, a library, a the­ater and the Midwest’s first indoor shop­ping mall.

Named after its founder, Pull­man was to be a com­pa­ny town: a planned com­mu­ni­ty in which an indi­vid­ual cor­po­ra­tion owns all of the busi­ness­es and hous­ing, in the name of cen­tral­iz­ing production.

Hun­dreds of com­pa­ny towns have exist­ed in the U.S. in some form or anoth­er, from the poor­ly con­struct­ed shan­ty towns of the min­ing or lum­ber indus­tries to Mil­ton S. Hershey’s grandiose amuse­ment park-like mod­el town built for his choco­late fac­to­ry work­ers in Pennsylvania.

Like Her­shey, Pull­man intend­ed his vil­lage to serve as a shin­ing alter­na­tive to the squalor of urban indus­tri­al slums. The streets were paved and out­fit­ted with mod­ern sew­ers, every house had indoor plumb­ing and thou­sands of trees and flow­ers were planted.

I want the peo­ple who work at Pull­man to have the advan­tages of see­ing the best,” Pull­man said. I want no cheap, crude, inartis­tic work in any depart­ment. I have faith in the edu­ca­tion­al and refin­ing influ­ences of beau­ty and beau­ti­ful and har­mo­nious sur­round­ings, and hes­i­tate at no rea­son­able expen­di­ture to secure them.”

In oth­er words, Pull­man believed he could to increase his prof­its while also respond­ing to the poor con­di­tions of ten­e­ment hous­ing that accom­pa­nied rapid indus­tri­al­iza­tion. Pro­tect­ing his work­ers from alco­hol, dis­ease and vice was good for them — and him.

He gen­uine­ly had a vision for the future in which work­ers wouldn’t have to live in the slums of Chica­go and they’d have this beau­ti­ful mod­el town,” said Jack Kel­ly, the author of the recent book The Edge of Anar­chy: The Rail­road Barons, the Gild­ed Age, and the Great­est Labor Upris­ing in Amer­i­ca. His employ­ees would have a bet­ter life and in turn would be more pro­duc­tive work­ers because they’d be sober, edu­cat­ed, and have short­er com­mutes. He saw it as a win-win.”

Many jour­nal­ists agreed, espe­cial­ly after see­ing it in per­son dur­ing the 1893 World’s Columbian Expo­si­tion. Future gen­er­a­tions will bless his mem­o­ry,” pre­dict­ed the Chica­go Times. Pro­gres­sives also not­ed that African Amer­i­cans worked as porters on the company’s Palace Cars,” and Pull­man became the largest employ­er of freed slaves in the country.

But while the press may have extolled Pullman’s virtues, crit­ics claim that the ameni­ties and bucol­ic sur­round­ings of his com­pa­ny town served as win­dow dress­ing for his pater­nal­ism and greed.

The church he built was very telling,” not­ed Kel­ly. He want­ed to charge so much rent for it that no one could afford it and it just sat there emp­ty, for decoration.”

No African Amer­i­can was allowed to live in the bound­aries of Pull­man, and black work­ers were paid low­er wages than whites. Pull­man also forced res­i­dents to fol­low a set of dra­con­ian rules. For instance, he report­ed­ly required ten­ants to place dec­o­ra­tive flow­ers in their win­dowsills and to wipe their feet on door­mats before they entered their own apart­ments. Tav­erns — an impor­tant fea­ture of work­ing-class life at the time — were out­lawed, and the only bar in town (locat­ed in the hotel named for Pullman’s daugh­ter Flo­rence) was strict­ly for visitors.

No one could vote to change these rules because no demo­c­ra­t­ic town gov­ern­ment was put in place.

To pre­vent any­one from union­iz­ing the com­pa­ny, accord­ing to Kel­ly, com­pa­ny spies were plant­ed across the town to report on any attempts to organize.

Not every out­sider was tak­en in by Pullman’s vision. Writ­ing for Harper’s in 1885, econ­o­mist Richard Ely called Pullman’s sys­tem benev­o­lent, well-wish­ing feu­dal­ism, which desires the hap­pi­ness of the peo­ple, but in such a way as shall please the authorities.”

It went back to that idea that the Lord of the Manor knows best,” said Kel­ly. And the prob­lem is that Pullman’s strict rules built all sorts of resent­ments among the work­ers that only got worse over time.”

The Pull­man Strike

These resent­ments were exac­er­bat­ed by an eco­nom­ic cri­sis in 1893 that plunged the nation into a depres­sion. Pull­man respond­ed to the company’s falling rev­enue by cut­ting his work­ers’ wages five times — includ­ing a sin­gle 30 per­cent cut — with­out reduc­ing rents, while con­tin­u­ing to pay stock­hold­ers the same pre-depres­sion div­i­dends. By April of 1894, some fam­i­lies liv­ing in Pullman’s town were on the brink of starvation.

There were guys who almost faint­ed on the job because they hadn’t eat­en in days because they couldn’t afford it,” said Kel­ly. One guy got a pay­check of two cents — he didn’t even cash it — he just had it framed. That real­ly showed the con­tempt that Pull­man had for work­ing people.”

The work­ers had tried to nego­ti­ate. Form­ing a union was against the law, but some of them orga­nized a 46-mem­ber griev­ance com­mit­tee in secret in a near­by neigh­bor­hood out­side of Pull­man. The committee’s lead­ers met twice with com­pa­ny offi­cials — includ­ing Pull­man him­self dur­ing the sec­ond meet­ing — to demand that he reverse the wage cuts and reduce the rents.

The com­pa­ny refused. Pull­man argued that arbi­tra­tion always implies acqui­es­cence in the deci­sion of the arbi­tra­tor, whether favor­able or adverse.” Six days lat­er, on May 12, 1894, thou­sands of work­ers walked off the job. The two-month-long strike had begun. We struck at Pull­man,” the work­ers lat­er tes­ti­fied, because we were with­out hope.”

The strike may have been eas­i­ly defeat­ed or gone rel­a­tive­ly unno­ticed out­side of Chica­go if not for the Amer­i­can Rail­way Union (ARU), the pow­er­ful cross-trade rail­road labor group found­ed the pre­vi­ous year and led by Eugene Debs. Before you had these broth­er­hoods, these craft unions that bick­ered, com­pet­ed and under­cut each oth­er,” said Kel­ly. The ARU was different.”

In April 1894, just one month pri­or to the Pull­man work­ers’ unrest, the ARU suc­cess­ful­ly led Great North­ern Rail­road work­ers through a dif­fer­ent dis­pute. Vol­un­tary arbi­tra­tion had resolved the strike, and three-fourths of the Great North­ern Railroad’s wage cut had been restored. In the fol­low­ing weeks, 35 per­cent of Pullman’s work­ers joined the ARU hop­ing that the new union could per­haps do the same for them.

Pull­man, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic,” the Pull­man work­ers told the ARU in a state­ment at the union’s first-ever nation­al con­ven­tion in Chica­go in June 1894. He owns the hous­es, the school­hous­es and church­es of God in the town he gave his once hum­ble name. The rev­enue he derives from these, the wages he pays out with one hand — the Pull­man Palace Car Com­pa­ny, he takes back with the oth­er — the Pull­man Land Asso­ci­a­tion. … And thus the mer­ry war— the dance of skele­tons bathed in human tears — goes on, and it will go on, broth­ers, for­ev­er, unless you, the Amer­i­can Rail­way Union, stop it; end it; crush it out.”

Debs’ response was ruth­less in its crit­i­cism of George Pull­man, call­ing him the plu­to­crat with a soul so small that a mil­lion of them could dance on the lit­tle end of a hornet’s stinger.” He called for the ARU to sup­port Pull­man work­ers with a sym­pa­thy strike because it was not just a sin­gle fight but part of a greater move­ment for work­ers’ uni­ver­sal rights to high­er wages, safer work­ing con­di­tions and oth­er basic protections.

The forces of labor must unite. The sal­va­tion of labor demands it,” Debs said at the con­ven­tion on June 12. The divid­ing lines must grow dim­mer day by day until they become imper­cep­ti­ble, and then labor’s hosts, mar­shaled under one con­quer­ing ban­ner, shall march togeth­er, vote togeth­er, and fight togeth­er until work­ing­men shall receive and enjoy all their fruits of their toil.”

It was a water­shed moment for sym­pa­thy strikes. Eugene Debs knew we all need­ed to stick togeth­er,” said Joe Burns, the author of the book Reviv­ing the Strike: How Work­ing Peo­ple Can Regain Pow­er and Trans­form Amer­i­ca, It was the hope and future of labor unions — class wide solidarity.”

On June 22, 1894, the del­e­gates of the ARU agreed to boy­cott Pull­man cars until the strike was set­tled. Despite threats from rail­road com­pa­nies that any work­er who refused to han­dle Pull­man cars would be fired, the sym­pa­thy strike offi­cial­ly began on June 26.

With­in a mat­ter of days, rail­roads west of Detroit were frozen for more than a month as work­ers either refused to touch Pullman’s cars or unhitched them from trains. Sud­den­ly pas­sen­gers were strand­ed, the price of food bal­looned, pow­er plants and fac­to­ries ran out of resources and mines and lum­ber mills were forced to close.

The rever­ber­a­tions of the sym­pa­thy strike were felt all over the coun­try — espe­cial­ly after the strike stopped the deliv­ery of U.S. mail. For Debs, an out­right strug­gle between the upper and low­er class­es appeared immi­nent as the strike, has devel­oped into a con­test between the pro­duc­ing class­es and the mon­ey pow­er of this country.”

U.S. Attor­ney Gen­er­al Richard Olney, also a rail­road lawyer and friend of Pullman’s, declared that Amer­i­ca had reached the ragged edge of anar­chy.” Olney asked the fed­er­al courts to ban the ARU boy­cotts, and on July 2 he received an injunc­tion to end the strike. Pres­i­dent Grover Cleve­land deployed fed­er­al troops from Fort Sheri­dan north of Chica­go to Pull­man to enforce the court’s ruling.

On July 4, a thou­sand troops arrived and set up camp, join­ing thou­sands of armed police and guards­men to break the strike while mass­es of unarmed strik­ers crowd­ed the rail­road yards. Over the next three days, riots broke out and hun­dreds of rail­cars were burned. Vio­lence erupt­ed after a rail­road agent shot one of the boy­cotters and 26 civil­ians were killed in the weeks-long may­hem that followed.

The sol­diers and rail­road work­ers got the trains mov­ing again and in the fol­low­ing weeks, Debs and oth­er agi­ta­tors were jailed for order­ing, direct­ing, aid­ing, assist­ing, or abet­ting” the rebel­lion. The strike was offi­cial­ly bro­ken on August 2.

Pull­man won the bat­tle, but the indus­tri­al king­dom he built would soon fall. His rep­u­ta­tion was ruined among gov­ern­ment offi­cials, his fel­low tycoons and those like Jane Addams — the famous activist and social jus­tice advo­cate who had tried to help arbi­trate the strike.

She con­sid­ered Pull­man to be like a King Lear fig­ure,” said Kelly.

Pres­i­dent Cleve­land ordered a com­mis­sion to dis­cov­er the caus­es of the strike, and the final report blamed the boss. The aes­thet­ic fea­tures are admired by vis­i­tors, but have lit­tle mon­ey val­ue to employ­ees, espe­cial­ly when they lack bread,” the report stated.

In 1898, the Illi­nois State Supreme Court ordered that Pull­man either divest itself of the com­pa­ny or the res­i­den­tial prop­er­ty. He chose his com­pa­ny. In 1889, Pull­man was annexed by the city of Chicago.

By the time George Pull­man died in 1897, he was so despised that his fam­i­ly buried him under thick lay­ers of rein­forced con­crete so that no one could descre­crate his grave. It is clear the fam­i­ly in their bereave­ment was mak­ing sure the son of a bitch was­n’t going to get up and come back,” not­ed jour­nal­ist Ambrose Bierce at the time.

Mean­while, Debs, who would lat­er found the Social­ist Par­ty, became a pop­ulist hero while in jail. Six months after being locked away, he re-emerged in Chica­go tri­umphant — with 100,000 sup­port­ers cheer­ing him on. By 1912, when a mil­lion Amer­i­cans vot­ed for Debs as pres­i­dent, both the Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats began to embrace pro­gres­sive reforms advo­cat­ed by Debs and oth­er social­ists: anti-trust and child labor laws, women’s suf­frage, min­i­mum wages and the eight-hour work day.

The return of solidarity

One-hun­dred and twen­ty five years after Debs’ speech to the ARU, Sara Nel­son sound­ed ready to con­tin­ue where the great social­ist labor leader left off.

Nel­son told the crowd gath­ered in the Pull­man visitor’s cen­ter about her call for a gen­er­al strike in Jan­u­ary, dur­ing the Trump administration’s month-long gov­ern­ment shut­down over fund­ing for his bor­der wall. After some air traf­fic con­trollers in key facil­i­ties called in sick, Nel­son warned that flight atten­dants were mobi­liz­ing imme­di­ate­ly” to strike. Hours lat­er, Trump reached a deal to reopen the government.

Our entire country’s econ­o­my was on the line, our safe­ty and secu­ri­ty were on the line. If we could just com­mu­ni­cate that to the pub­lic, and say what we were will­ing to do — we could end this [shut­down],” said Nel­son. The won­der­ful news is that no one knew what a gen­er­al strike was, but it scared the piss out of them. It worked.”

Over the last two years, mass work stop­pages have spread across the coun­try. Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, only 25,000 work­ers were involved in major work stop­page in 2017, but that num­bered sky­rock­et­ed to 485,000 in 2018. These actions range from the wild­cat strikes of hun­dreds of thou­sands of teach­ers and edu­ca­tion work­ers in four Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed states to tens of thou­sands of hos­pi­tal work­ers strik­ing in 2018. The first half of 2019 has also seen major work stop­pages, includ­ing the recent strike of 31,000 employ­ees of the gro­cery chain Stop & Shop across three north­east­ern states — one of the largest pri­vate sec­tor strikes in years.

These large-scale strikes helped bring vic­to­ries for both work­ers and the labor move­ment as a whole. But Nel­son believes that gen­er­al and sym­pa­thy strikes are the log­i­cal next step in secur­ing more sig­nif­i­cant wins.

Today, most sol­i­dar­i­ty strikes are ille­gal, says Burns, due to leg­is­la­tion rang­ing from the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act of 1935 to the 1947 Taft-Hart­ley Act. That’s part of the rea­son why they’ve fall­en out of fash­ion since the days of the Great Pull­man Strike.

But the flight atten­dant union’s suc­cess­ful threat of a walk­out — as well as the wild­cat teach­ers’ strikes — are proof that the law can be beat­en by mass sol­i­dar­i­ty, says Burns. Labor law is set up for work­ers to lose and it’s going to change through the courts,” he said. It will only change with work­ers com­ing togeth­er and fight­ing for the right to strike and free speech.”

For Nel­son, sym­pa­thy strikes don’t have to rep­re­sent the labor movement’s anti­quat­ed past. Today’s new Gild­ed Age is pop­u­lat­ed by a new gen­er­a­tion of rob­ber barons, and the Great Pull­man Strike could help illu­mi­nate a path for­ward for Amer­i­can workers.

In what could be a hint of what’s to come, the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca threat­ened a sym­pa­thy strike in sup­port of West Vir­ginia teach­ers in ear­ly June. The teach­ers are fight­ing state Repub­li­cans’ pro­posed retal­i­a­tion to their 2018 walk­out by cre­at­ing new penal­ties for teach­ers who go on strike. Cecil Roberts, the inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca, said, Let me make this very clear: If our state’s edu­ca­tion work­ers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if some­one comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”

A large-scale gen­er­al strike may not hap­pen tomor­row, but Nel­son believes it may not be as far off as we think.

We’re not quite there yet, but when I called for a gen­er­al strike dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, I absolute­ly expect­ed peo­ple to say, You’re crazy lady, you can’t do that!’ Instead what I got was, What are we wait­ing for? Yeah, let’s go!’”

Ryan Smith is a Chica­go-based jour­nal­ist. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin Mag­a­zine, Chica­go Sun-Times, Chica­go Read­er, Belt Mag­a­zine and oth­er publications.
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