Strike Away!: The Pullman Strike

George Mortimer Pullman (March 3, 1831 – Octob...

George Mortimer Pullman Courtesy Wikipedia

Ah, Pullman, Illinois, the cultured town of beauty, cleanliness, orderliness and…what’s this injustice? That’s right, folks. Pullman wasn’t exactly a utopia. Many of the townspeople lived in shacks, paying $8 a month. In a report made afterwards it was stated:

Property that rents for $10 per month in Pullman will probably rent for something like $5 outside of Pullman

Rent was deducted from employees paychecks, and not long before the strike it was not unusual for an employee to receive a check for a few cents. These few cents was all a person had left to feed and clothe their families. It was dictated that Pullman employees were required to live in the Pullman town. To illustrate the eccentrics of George Pullman, creator and ruler of the town, high fees prevented the use of the Pullman library among other things.

George Mortimer Pullman, whether he realized it or not, was a control freak. Although he came from humble beginnings he did not seem to have any sympathy for the less fortunate. He was the ‘hall monitor’ of the Pullman streets, also employing spies to sniff out ay employees that spoke out against him. He controlled every aspect of his company and all of his employees.

Pullman may appear to be all glitter and glow, all gladness and glory to the casual visitor, but there is the deep, dark background of discontent which it would be idle to deny.

Then the depression hit in 1893. Pullman was forced to layoff hundreds of employees. Layoffs continued to skyrocket well into 1894. Those who were not laid off received pay cuts. While obliterating paychecks , Pullman refused to lower rent costs. He claimed it was a separate institution. He neglected to further explain that he also headed up the ‘separate organization’. Families were going hungry. Thinking either was a losing battle, with a chance of winning a strike, the Pullman employees walked off their jobs on May 11, 1894. It was their counterattack, and really only option considering the circumstances, against the detestable situation. The 300 odd employees that continued to support Pullman were soon out of jobs when Pullman closed down shop.

Eugene Debs and his American Railway Union (ARU) gave the strikers hope. Debs, who was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, like Pullman came from humble beginnings. Unlike Pullman he appeared to care for other people. Debs made it clear that he would tolerate no violence from the strikers. It would turn public opinion against them, and public opinion mattered. Also they would have to keep the US mail moving, to keep the federal government from becoming involved. Efforts had been made prior to the strike, to reach a peaceful conclusion. Unfortunately, they had ended miserably. The General Managers Association (GMA) soon issued a statement, warning that any employee who refused to follow orders could consider themselves out of work. True to their word, they fired employees who refused to move a Pullman car. That, sadly for the GMA, backfired. Approximately 50,000 railroad employees walked off their jobs. The tide seemed to be turning.

The railroad companies were in a tizzy. They were losing money in the strike. Why didn’t President Cleveland send troops to put down this anarchist movement? Simply, because Grover Cleveland would only send troops at the request of Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld. Altgeld had not requested federal troops, nor was he going to. The governor was a friend and ally of the common man.  He had seen the conditions they were enduring and sympathized with them. In a letter to Pullman he stated:

Sir:—I have examined the conditions at Pullman yesterday, visited even the kitchens and bedrooms of many of the people. Two representatives of your company were with me and we found the distress as great as it was represented. The men are hungry and the women and children are actually suffering. They have been living on charity for a number of months and it is exhausted. Men who had worked for your company for more than ten years had to apply to the relief society in two weeks after the work stopped.

But the presence of troops would soon change. Attorney General Richard Olney was a firm defender of the railroad companies. Teaming up with GMA to break the strike he soon got his way. After rioting in Blue Island destroyed railroad property and fight with law enforcement erupted, Olney got an injunction on July 2nd. The terms of the injunction, he knew would never be obeyed by the strikers. It was his trap. Then for extra measure he went whining to Cleveland for support.Cleveland was still unsure if it was legal to send troops when Altgeld had not requested it. Olney finally got his way and on the 4th of July sparks did fly. Troops entered Chicago. Cleveland declared:

If it takes every dollar in the Treasury and every soldier in the United States Army to deliver a postal card in Chicago, that postal card shall be delivered.

Altgeld and Chicago mayor John Hopkins, were naturally angry, but they went unheeded. Unfortunately, the strike was becoming a losing battle. On the 7th a mob harassing a train’s military escort drew the soldiers fire. It must have resembled the Boston Massacre, somewhat.

The GMA had employed  30,000 guards for their valued yards. GMA did not seem to care that some of their new employees were ‘riff-raff’.While GMA was unwilling to tolerate their union ties they would employ a considerable amount of thugs. These guards were also being paid $2.50 a day.In the investigation following the strike it was reported that:

I must say that I saw more deputy sheriffs and deputy marshals drunk than I saw strikers drunk

A second wave of troops added to the tense situation. On July 10th, Debs and other union leaders were arrested on charges of interference with the US mail. Everything that Debs had waned against and opposed had taken place. Weary with the constant confrontations, the  starving strikers returned to their wretched jobs, promising not to join a union. Others were either fired or blacklisted or both. On August 3rd the strike was over.

On the 17th Debs landed himself in jail, once again. This time the charge was contempt of court. To add to this was his trial for hindering the US mail train. Six months later when he was released from jail, the ARU had all but disappeared.

Eugene Debs (front right), Martin J. Elliott (...

Eugene Debs (front right), Martin J. Elliott (center rear) and other A.R.U. board members in prison together after Pullman strike Courtesy Wikipedia

But greeting him was a cheering crowd welcoming him back to the outside world.

On November 14, 1894, upon finishing an investigation into the Pullman strike, Pullman got what was coming to him. Oddly, he failed to see his his unreasonableness. Debs went on to become a socialist. Although people continued to hold a disgusted view of Altgeld till his death, ‘history has been kind to him’. He is now lauded as a sort of hero. A few years later Pullman died, and his grave had concrete poured over it. It was his family’s effort to protect his grave from any person who would wish to desecrate it. His town, Pullman, is now part of Chicago.

8 thoughts on “Strike Away!: The Pullman Strike

    • Thanks! Over the last few years I’ve read numerous subjects and until this blog came along I had no way of sharing it. This is my outlet, as well as my writing platform. It’s been fun.


  1. Today, we can hardly conceptualize how and why company-towns existed. Our private ownership of homes & banking systems (as poorly behaved as they have been in recent years) did not exist 100+ years ago. This time of year, I think of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” with the images of “Pottersville” that might have existed if George Bailey did not take over the Savings and Loan from his father. While this may seem quaint today, Pottersvilles were all about at the time. Pullman sounds like one of these. On another note, earlier this year, we saw a play, Pullman Porter Blues, that chronicalled the generations of porters working for the Pullman line from Chicago to New Orleans.


    • A lot of history wrapped up with the Pullman name. I’ve never really thought of the comparisons between Pullman and Pottersville before. 🙂 Going to drop by to read your post! Must have missed it.


    • Having grown up in Silicon Valley, the concept of the company town was foreign to me until I moved to Queens. One of the districts, on the East River looking over the Upper East Side of Manhattan was “Steinway”. When I asked about this, I learned that this was where Steinway pianos used to be made. The housing was all company housing, thus the district name.

      To add to your Christmas movie references, a ways out on Long Island is Levittown. This was one of the first planned communities with tract homes aimed at the working class/middle class coming out of NYC. This is what George Bailey was building, rather than Pottersville.


    • That is interesting. A wee bit difficult to fathom as I had never thought of the piano business being so “far reaching” (even if in they have been a popular choice of instrument). Thanks for sharing!


  2. Always great to find a fresh story to read here.

    It’s amazing to think that such injustices were still happening not much more that 100 years ago. I’m no fan of trade unions and despise socialism/ communism but occasionally good me do make a difference!!

    As usual, thanks for always returning to OMBH!! It’s appreciated!! 😉


    • Socialism and Communism aren’t high on my list of likes either, but as you say in this instance they did better a rather bad situation. But such happenings at the hands of these two are few and far between as both political ideologies have historically demonstrated in Asia, Europe and South America. Thanks for continuing to read!


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