United States and American History: 1894 & The Pullman Strike

About the history of the United States in 1894, the Pullman strike, its leader Eugene V. Debs, the actions of Cleveland against Chicago workers, reasons the workers failed.


May 10 The railroad strike of 1894 began. Pullman, Ill., the home of the Pullman Palace Car Co., was a company town all the way. Everything--the land, the houses, the stores, the churches--was owned by George Pullman. Even the sewage from the workers' homes was pumped to Pullman's stock farm. Rent was deducted from the workers' paychecks:

One man has a paycheck in his possession of 2cent after paying rent. . . . He has it framed.

--Minister of the Pullman Methodist-Episcopal Church

This day, May 10, the Pullman workers went on strike. A month later, they appealed for aid to the 1st convention of the newly formed American Railway Union, whose president was Eugene V. Debs. When Pullman refused to arbitrate, the convention voted unanimously to boycott Pullman cars.

On June 26, switchmen in Chicago refused to man the switches for Pullman cars and were instantly fired. The boycott began and 2 days later 4 or 5 Chicago railroads were stopped with 18,000 men on strike. Soon the only line running out of Chicago was the Great Northern which carried no Pullman cars. The struggle quickly extended to 27 States and Territories, and 260,000 railroad workers joined the strike. The New York Times of June 29 called it "the greatest battle between labor and capital that has ever been inaugurated in the U.S." On June 30, the Trades and Labor Assembly in Chicago pledged its 150,000 members in support of the strike, but Debs considered a general strike to be too extreme.

The railroad owners were also active, and the leaders of 26 Chicago railroads organized the General Managers' Association to plan strategy in support of Pullman. Their major tactic was to persuade the Federal courts to issue an anti-strike injunction which they knew would be ignored. This gave them the excuse to call in Federal troops. It is worth noting that U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, who had been a railroad lawyer for 35 years, was on the Board of Directors of one of the railroads being boycotted.

Despite the protests of Illinois governor Altgeld, the city of Chicago was occupied by 14,000 armed troops (6,000 Federal troops, 5,000 deputy U.S. marshals, and 3,000 police) under the command of Gen. Nelson A. Miles. With the arrival of Federal troops, the peaceful mood of the strike gave way to violence. On July 5, crowds overturned boxcars, threw switches, and changed signal lights. Seven structures at the World's Columbian Exposition were destroyed by fire. Only July 4, a railroad agent on the Illinois Central shot 2 members of a crowd, and the crowed burned the yard. Action spread to other lines and, at night, 700 cars were destroyed at the Panhandle yards in South Chicago.

President Grover Cleveland, without consulting the Populist governor of the State, sent 5 companies of U.S. troops to Trinidad, Colo., to combat a large crowd which had captured and disarmed 42 deputy marshals. In Raton, N. Mex., the railroad strikers gained the support of the sheriff and 300 striking coal miners. When a U.S. marshal and his deputies entered Raton, the hotel workers quite rather than serve them. In Los Angeles, 5 companies of State militia declared themselves in sympathy with the strike, which was broken there only by putting a detachment of troops on each train. In Sacramento, Calif., many of the militiamen deserted or refused to fire on the strikers, and 542 Federal troops were finally called in to clear the railroad tracks with fixed bayonets. In Hammond, Ind., large crowds ranged over the tracks, attacking strikebreakers and derailing trains. They also seized the telegraph office to prevent an appeal for the militia. On July 8, State militia and Federal troops cleared the tracks by firing indiscriminately into the crowd.

By the end of the strike, 34 strikers had been killed, including 13 in Chicago, and Federal or State troops had been called out in Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, Colorado, and California.

Back in Chicago, where workers passionately supported the strike, newsboys dropped newspapers which opposed the Pullman boycott in to the sewers. The working class pushed the union leaders toward a general strike, and on July 7, the Building and Trades Council, representing 25,000 workers, gave Pullman until July 10 to accept arbitration. This delay proved fatal. On July 10, Debs and the other leaders of the American Railway Union were arrested for conspiracy, and their offices were ransacked by U.S. marshals in a raid that the Dept. of Justice later admitted was illegal. By this time, the military was in control, and the blockade out of Chicago was broken. The leaders of the American Federation of Labor refused to endorse a general strike and instead pledged $1,000 to Debs's legal defense fund. The strike ended.

Even as George Pullman announced that the main issue had been "the principle that the main issue had been "the principle that a man should have the right to manage his own property," the working class was trying to determine why their strike had failed. It had failed for 3 primary reasons.

1)Their leadership had been too centralized. When Debs and the other ARU leaders were jailed, the organization of the strike fell apart completely.

2)The ARU, despite its slogan of "One Union for All Workers," excluded Negroes. When the strike was called, blacks gladly worked as strikebreakers.

3) Debs and the ARU leadership were addicted to orderly, legal tactics. Debs had said that he preferred to end the strike rather than let it develop into a revolution. Consequently, when Federal troops were called out, the workers found themselves unprepared and illequipped to fight back.

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