The Pullman Strike was a nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads that occurred in the United States in 1894. The conflict began in the town of Pullman, Illinois, on May 11 when nearly 4,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company began a wildcat strike in response to recent reductions in wages, stopping traffic west of Chicago.
But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.
1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.
Nonetheless, the defeat at Pullman portended an extended period of exclusion of labor organizations from the bastions of corporate-run, large-scale industry. AFL unions hunkered down in industries characterized by large numbers of small employers using less advanced, smaller-scale production methods. After 1904, national employers and their associations picked up the weapon of the labor injunction used so effectively against the boycott of the American Railway Union (ARU) and set labor back on its heels for more than a decade.
The [Supreme Court's] steadfast adherence to Hamiltonian market-state values is the only way to explain its perverse use of the commerce clause in resolving these commercial cases. When the clause was applied to the Chicago Pullman strike led by Eugene Debs' American Railway Union the court decided that it could ban the strike and imprison Debs because although the workers were not engaged in interstate activity the rail cars they manufactured were.
For Debs the Pullman defeat was a bitter one. He greatly resented American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers’ refusal to ask his member unions to go out on general strike on behalf of Pullman workers—even though by the time he asked for aid, the strike was doomed. But, far more, Debs resented the collusion between the federal government, especially the judiciary, and the large corporations. From that point forward, Debs believed that the only way to redeem American liberty and the American republic from corruption was through political action to destroy the overweening power of the large corporations.
In Chicago that day, thirteen people were killed, fifty-three seriously wounded, seven hundred arrested. Before the strike was over, perhaps thirty-four were dead. With fourteen thousand police, militia, troops in Chicago, the strike was crushed. Debs was arrested for contempt of court, for violating the injunction that said he could not do or say anything to carry on the strike. He told the court: "It seems to me that if it were not for resistance to degrading conditions, the tendency of our whole civilization would be downward; after a while we would reach the point where there would be no resistance, and slavery would come."
The General Managers Association, representing the railroad owners, agreed to pay two thousand deputies, sent in to break the strike. But the strike went on. The Attorney General of the United States, Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer, now got a court injunction against blocking trains, on the legal ground that the federal mails were being interfered with. When the strikers ignored the injunction, President Cleveland ordered federal troops to Chicago. On July 6, hundreds of cars were burned by strikers.
George M. Pullman, you know, has cut our wages from 30 to 70 percent. George M. Pullman has caused to be paid in the last year the regular quarterly dividend of 2 percent on his stock and an extra slice of 1 1/2 percent, making 9 1/2 percent on $30,000,000 of capital. George M. Pullman, you know, took three contracts on which he lost less than $5,000. Because he loved us? No. Because it was cheaper to lose a little money in his freight car and his coach shops than to let his workingmen go, but that petty loss, more than made up by us from money we needed to clothe our wives and little ones, was his excuse for effecting a gigantic reduction of wages in every department of his great works, of cutting men and boys and girls; with equal zeal, including everyone in the repair shops of the Pullman Palace cars on which such preposterous profits have been made. . . .
When we went to tell him our grievances he said we were all his “children.” Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic. 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. He is able by this to bid under any contract car shop in this country.
Orders for railroad sleeping cars declined, and George Pullman was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained endured wage cuts, even while rents in Pullman remained consistent. Take-home paychecks plummeted.
And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union, led by a young Eugene V. Debs, came to the cause of the striking workers, and railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars soon ensued; mobs of non-union workers joined in.
1894 was the second of four years of depression. The pinch was felt even by the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured the sleeping cars used by most of the nation's railroads. George Pullman responded by laying off several thousand of his 5,800 employees and cutting pay 25 to 50 percent, while refusing to reduce rents charged employees, who lived in the company town of Pullman, near Chicago. Then he fired three members of a workers' grievance committee.