The Pullman Strike

by Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University


In the late spring of 1894, over four thousand workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went out on strike. The company seemed an unlikely place for a strike, as its workers inhabited the well-appointed company town of Pullman, located near Chicago, Illinois. But the rise of Pullman-style welfare capitalism obscured a number of significant strains and tensions that quickly came to the surface in the economic depression of 1893-98. During the summer of 1894 members of the American Railway Union representing the strikers succeeded in paralyzing the American railroad network west of Chicago by refusing to handle the popular Pullman cars. A federal judge’s injunction against the Union boycott turned the strike’s tide in favor of the Pullman Company. President Cleveland effectively finished the strikers off when he dispatched federal troops to Chicago, where they protected strikebreakers operating trains.

George M. Pullman and the Sleeping Car Business

George M. Pullman (pictured below) was in many ways typical of the upwardly mobile, industrial entrepreneurs who came from the New England and New York to make Chicago the greatest industrial city of the world during the late nineteenth century. He was born in Albion, New York in 1831 and learned the carpentry trade from his father. Recently experienced in the business of house moving, he relocated to Chicago in 1855 because of the widespread need to raise existing buildings up to the recently elevated street grade. By the time he raised the four story Tremont Hotel in 1858 using a thousand men and five thousand jackscrews, the twenty-seven year old Pullman had become the leading businessman in his field and one of the young city’s most important citizens.

With house raising work almost completed in the city, Pullman turned to a new business that utilized his carpentry talents: constructing railroad sleeping cars. As railroad mileage tripled between 1850 and 1860, the uncomfortable conditions passengers endured on trips longer than a few hours became intolerable. Passenger cars were not built to cushion jolts; windows constantly rattled; in the winter, wood-burning stoves could fill the cars with smoke and caused accidents; and in the summer riders sweltered. It took three and a half days to travel from Chicago to New York, and a typical traveler resorted to hotels at night. The need for a sleeping car was widely understood, but at the time none were satisfactory. In 1858, Pullman began renovating existing sleeping cars for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Eventually, he established a small crew and began building cars from scratch. In 1864, his crew built the classic sleeping car he called “The Pioneer.” With brocaded fabrics, hand-crafted window and door frames, plush red carpets, and richly ornamented paneling, the Pioneer was a study in luxury. It was also the turning point in Pullman’s rise to success.

George M. Pullman Pullman’s luxurious sleeping car appealed to America’s fast growing wealthy class hungry for status and a new middle class that aspired to the same outward markers of social standing. Pullman shrewdly took advantage of this in his marketing strategy, which relied on quality of service and prestige rather than low prices. His first success came after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when he was able to use his business connections to have Lincoln’s casket transported in the Pioneer even though it required widening platforms at stations and raising bridges. He was able to win glowing accolades from prominent businessmen and citizens of standing like Ulysses Grant; he also placed the car on exhibit to the public, where thousands could view its virtues. Needing capital to expand his business, Pullman turned to railroad magnates and leading Chicago businessmen who saw the potential value of comfortable long distance railroad travel for well-to-do, including the prosperous middle class. They took up his private initial offering of one million dollars in stock in the new Pullman Palace Car Company in 1866. Shortly after, future steel baron Andrew Carnegie, representing a competing Eastern sleeping car interest, came in with Pullman. During the 1880s, Pullman out-competed his remaining rivals and became a virtual monopoly by the early 1890s.

Another of Pullman’s keys to business success was innovation and variety, which soon became essential to his corporate image. He tirelessly experimented in raising the standards in railroad travel and varied his sleeping cars to make each one somewhat different in interior ornamentation. In 1867 he rolled out the “Delmonico,” the first dining car—called a “hotel car”--with a kitchen at its center; it could serve 250 meals a day. In 1875 he built a luxurious “parlor car,” which offered an upscale traveling experience. Meanwhile, his designers continuously improved heating, ventilation, and lighting.

Throughout it all, Pullman’s appeal to the public rested on meticulous service. Pullman used the existing racial division of labor in hiring. White conductors collected tickets and sold berths en route. To perform menial work like carrying luggage, preparing the berths for use, cleaning the cars, and providing personal services to passengers, he hired African-American porters, many of them recently freed slaves. The conductors, who supervised the sleeping car porters, received white men’s wages; the porters received less than one-sixth the wages of conductors. Low wages kept them dependent on the tips and thus the good will of white passengers. Despite the servant-like position of porters, Pullman had a good reputation among blacks due to the secure jobs and relatively high income they provided.

In 1870, Pullman inaugurated his first manufacturing plant; by 1875 he employed between two hundred and six hundred men a year. Following the close of the 1873-79 depression, Pullman searched for a location to concentrate and enlarge his manufacturing operations. The result would be the town of Pullman.

The Town of Pullman

Pullman was an innovator not only in business and industry but in ameliorating the social problems faced by the new class of capitalists of which he was a part. He was a founder and officer in the exclusive Commercial Club and a founder and President of the Young Men's Christian Association. He was particularly interested in "the labor question." As the country shifted from a society of small producers composed of family farmers and artisans, to an industrial capitalist society, the class question rose to the fore. The grievances of workers and their propensity to join unions and engage in strikes and violence-tinged social upheavals was becoming the central issue of the Gilded Age. Following the 1877 railroad strike and “great upheaval,” Pullman volunteered to help lead the Citizens Law and Order League, which sought to enforce the laws on the prohibition of alcohol to minors. To Pullman and others of his class the improvement of working-class character was key to social order. In their thinking the ideal workingman would strive to ascend into the middle class through hard work, refraining from alcohol and associating with the saloon fraternity, and deferring immediate gratification in favor of saving for the future. The resultant product was to be a worker who would struggle to leave his class, rather than unite with the rest of his fellows to fight for better working conditions and pay.

By the 1880s, many reformers had shifted from personal reform through revivalism, education, and public exhortation to an environmental emphasis. They believed that by changing the social environment in which the worker lived and worked they could induce habits of respectability, uplift workers’ character, and change social attitudes. In 1879 Pullman followed closely the movement in New York to create model tenements that would offer working class families clean and ventilated room to reduce sickness and disease and promote good morals by inducing men to stay at home rather than escape to saloons. In return, investors would receive a reasonable 7% return.

The idea that improving workers’ material conditions of life could be made compatible with the most efficient and economical business practices lay at the heart of Pullman’s plan in 1880 to build a model town south of Chicago. The town was intended neither as philanthropy or charity nor as a utopian experiment. It was an attempt to demonstrate that reform and uplift could be made a paying proposition, just as he had turned comfort, beauty, and luxury in railroad travel into a successful business enterprise. As Pullman put it:

Capital will not invest in sentiment nor for sentimental considerations for the laboring classes. But let it once be proved that enterprises of this kind are safe and profitable and we shall see great manufacturing corporations developing similar enterprises, and thus a new era will introduced into the history of labor.1

Pullman Workers' HousesThe town of Pullman would be built fourteen miles south of central Chicago with its rough working class districts, its dirty air and unhealthful tenements, and its union organizing and strikes. Unlike the typical town or city, which grew haphazardly without order or forethought, Pullman would be designed according to a well-thought out plan; yet unlike the typical utilitarian company town, which served immediate profit, Pullman would be dedicated to social uplift.

Pullman hired a renowned architect, Solon Spenser Bemen and a landscape designer, Nathan F. Barrett, to plan the town on a two and a half mile strip of land between Lake Calument and the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. The industrial area of the town included the Pullman car works comprising nine buildings over thirty acres; non-Pullman businesses included allied factories, foundries, and lumberyards. The industrial area was kept separate from the 150-acre town to its south. The builders of Pullman first laid water, sewer and gas lines so that every home would have indoor plumbing and be free from floods or standing water during rains. Bemen created a hierarchically-ordered housing system on a grid pattern of streets. Company officers, town retailers, and professionals had the largest homes, followed by foremen, skilled workers, and then unskilled laborers. The latter lived in large three story tenements. The company provided shrubbery and lawn care, painted residences, collected garbage and barrels of ashes, and cleaned tenement halls.

The most outstanding feature of the town was the large Florence Hotel named after Pullman’s favorite daughter and used for visitors and business dealings. Instead of a central avenue with retail shops or a company store, the town had the Arcade and Market Hall buildings, which housed stores leased to independent retailers, along with a library, theater, and meeting rooms. Pullman also had a Bank building, a school with playground, a Greenstone Church with 800 pews, and an imposing clock tower. Along the edge of the town, the architect built a large park and an artificial two-acre island on Lake Calumet with athletic facilities. With the exception of the Florence Hotel’s bar, there were no saloons in Pullman. By 1884 the town had 1400 dwelling units and 8500 inhabitants.

With the same marketing flair that Pullman had used to drum up interest in his railroad cars, Pullman attracted visitors to his model town. Hailed in one story as “the eighth wonder of the world", Pullman’s planned environment became a favorite tourist attraction, especially for visiting business groups. Hundreds visited daily, and accounts were almost uniformly laudatory. In 1887, one Englishman wrote in the (London) Times that “No place in the United States has attracted more attention or has been more closely watched.”2

But, as the novelty passed, some concerns arose. Despite its family-friendly image and the fact that a majority of its employees were relatively highly paid skilled workmen, the town as well as the company itself experienced a high degree of turnover. In 1892, the average length of residence was four and a quarter years. According to one observer, “No one regards it as a real home.” Moreover, men outnumbered women by between 2 and 3:1. The large number of single men usually resided in other workers’ homes as boarders. Even as the town grew to 14,700 in 1892, thousands of Pullman’s workers lived outside the town’s limits in nearby Kensington, Roseland, or Gano. Only two-thirds of Pullman’s workers actually lived in the town and one-half of those were boarders.

Many workers resented their inability to buy their homes, a limitation that Pullman adamantly retained. Pullman officials conducted periodic inspections of workers’ homes to make sure they were not damaged and that the town maintained a proper public image. Moreover, rent was higher in Pullman than elsewhere; in 1893 it comprised one-third rather than the more typical one-fifth of a workers’ income. Because the majority of Pullman’s residents were immigrants, many wanted to build their own ethnic institutions and were attracted to nearby towns where this was allowed. Others dissented from Pullman’s single, generic Christian church and desired to build their own denominational churches. Last, but hardly least, many male workers objected to the absence of close-at-hand saloons and opted for living in nearby “wet” towns.

Richard T. Ely, a Christian, pro-labor reformer, was the first outside observer to write critically of Pullman’s claim to have solved the ubiquitous labor question. While praising Pullman for diffusing the benefits of concentrated wealth to his workmen and accepting at face value the goal of promoting middle-class respectability, Ely reported workers’ resentment at total surveillance of their lives and their lack of self-government. As Ely put it, Pullman was a “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such way as shall please the authorities.” That suffocating paternalism, which contradicted American notions of personal independence and freedom, would soon become an issue of national importance. 3

The Pullman Strike and Boycott

The origins, course, and outcome of the Pullman Boycott lay not just in the town of Pullman, but in the workplace conditions his workers faced, the era’s prevalent business practices, the impact of the depression of 1893-98, the rise of a unifying labor organization on the railroads, and the response of the federal judiciary. More broadly, the boycott embodied a clash between older and newer ideas of property and liberty giving impetus to a transformation of American liberal beliefs.

On the eve of the Pullman Boycott, American employers had begun to embrace new methods of supervising labor, particularly skilled workers, who were prone to greater independence than unskilled laborers. Instead of hiring skilled workers off the street, a practice that accepted the work customs and possible union proclivities of new hires, railroad and other industrial managers began to seize control of the workplace. They searched for ways to dilute and reduce the importance of skill, imposed new job protocols, standardized rules for hiring, firing, and promotions, and created job ladders—all in an attempt to reduce the power of skilled workers, cut operating costs, and create a more stable and tractable workforce. In short, they moved toward what historians call internal labor markets and scientific management.

Following a short-lived 1886 strike by his skilled workmen, Pullman began to adopt many of these approaches. By the time of the 1894 strike, the company had reorganized the woodworking departments to reduce the number of skilled workers and increase the number of unskilled. In other departments skills were broken up into more specialized ones. In most divisions Pullman ended inside contracting and replaced gang bosses with foremen. For most skilled workers, Pullman’s superintendents replaced day wages with piece rates, with the goal of increasing per capita production.

The recent changes reducing the independent standing of skilled workers became the basis of a set of grievances that helped instigate the strike. Workers complained that foremen adjusted piece-rates for each new job, thus creating unpredictability in expected monthly income. They also complained of favoritism, arbitrariness, and abusive conduct among foremen. To these standing grievances were added the actions of Pullman in response to the start of the 1893 national depression. Simply put, Pullman reduced his workers’ wages (in the form of piece-rates), but not the rents in their homes. But, there was a larger context to these wage reductions that involves an understanding of normal business practices in the late nineteenth century.

With the hothouse industrialization of the post-Civil War period, industrial firms were often compelled to cover their high fixed costs by recklessly competing with each other for market share. They engaged in ruinous price and wage cutting, which was known as “cutthroat competition.” These firms continued to invest and produce commodities even when the income returned did not cover their costs—what contemporaries called “overproduction.” Nowhere was this was more prevalent than in the economy’s leading industry, the railroads. In the 1880s, three-quarters of the nation’s steel production went into railroad building; and between 1877 and 1893 the nation’s rail network doubled. The unintended result--overbuilding, heavy indebtedness, widespread bankruptcies, and inflated stock prices--forced railroad managers into cutthroat competition and overproduction. Indeed, a failure in railroad financing precipitated the 1893-98 depression.

George Pullman responded to the depression much like many of his contemporaries. At first he cut back his workforce by three-quarters. But widespread layoffs threatened both profits and the paternalism on which his town had been founded. In 1894, he began taking contracts at a loss—overproduction. This enabled Pullman to rehire many workers, so that by April 1894, 68 percent of the old workforce was employed again. But the only way to compensate was by cutting piece-rates a drastic 28 percent on average. Moreover, because Pullman remained committed to a return on investment in the homes he had built for his workers, he refused to reduce the rents he charged, which were already higher than rents charged elsewhere. The resulting economic hardship was greatly exacerbated by the unpredictability in piece-rates and the grievances against particular foremen. To make matters worse, Pullman did not inform his men he was taking contracts at a loss, and this contributed to a loss of confidence in the company.

A different, less material grievance united Pullman’s workers and won them public sympathy. To many male workers the paternalism of Pullman had been tolerable only as long as they were able to sustain their own paternalism over their wives and children by bringing home a family wage. When wage cuts reduced these workers’ families to destitution and an object of public charity, Pullman had evidently abandoned both kinds of paternalism. The violation of their “manliness”—a Victorian-era moral code which connected manhood with the protection of women and children—made the Pullman workers’ cause a popular one in Chicago.

On May 7, a committee of workers met with company Vice-President Thomas Wickes to request a restoration in wages or a reduction in rents and an end to harassment by foremen. Three days later, three of the men who had attended the conference with Wickes were fired with no explanation. This gesture of apparent bad faith ended negotiations, and the strike was on.

Local leader Thomas Heathcoate explained the desperate self-assertion that underlay their action: “We do not know what the outcome will be, and in fact we do not care much. We do know that we are working for less wages than will maintain ourselves and families in the necessaries of life, and on that one proposition we absolutely refuse to work any longer.”

Governor John Peter AltgeldThe Pullman workers who met with the company in early May had recently joined the nation’s largest labor organization. The American Railway Union (ARU) had been founded a year earlier by a thirty-eight year old, charismatic former official of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Eugene Victor Debs. The ARU was a response to the counterattack on the wages and working conditions of railroad workers by a coalition of railroad managers, the General Managers Association (GMA). Founded in 1886, the GMA set standard job classifications and wages, recruited strikebreakers, and equalized revenue losses that railroads faced as a result of strikes. Debs recognized that the union brotherhoods of the locomotive engineers, brakemen, firemen and other skilled railroad workers must cooperate among themselves and with the masses of unskilled railroad workers if they were to successfully counter the tactics of the GMA. After experimenting for several years with federations of brotherhoods, Debs created the ARU, an association of all workers employed by the railroads irrespective of their skill level or whether they worked in the repair shops, running trades, or freight depots. After winning a widely trumpeted victory over the Great Northern Pacific Railroad in 1893, dissatisfied Western railroad workers flocked to the new organization. When it held its first convention in Chicago in June 1894, it boasted 150,000 members, including about a third of the employees of George Pullman. The new managerial elite of the nation’s largest industry now faced a worthy adversary.

At the June convention of the ARU, Pullman strikers asked the ARU to declare a sympathy boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars. Debs was cautious, viewing a boycott as risky for the new labor organization. But, Pullman refused to bargain, even at the urging of the Civic Federation of Chicago, a public interest coalition led by the city’s top citizens. Pullman was convinced he was defending an important principle: that private property was an inviolable natural right, unrestrained by social obligations. His intransigence left the delegates to the ARU convention little choice but to declare a boycott. The result was a battle to the finish between the Pullman Company and the GMA on the one hand, and the Pullman local and ARU on the other. The boycott was also the greatest instance in American history of sympathy action by one group of workers on behalf of another.

In one important respect, the strikers’ sympathy was flawed. Like many other white-led labor organizations of the time, the ARU and the Pullman local refused membership to Pullman’s two thousand African-American porters. It is possible that if these porters had struck with the rest of Pullman’s workers the union might have been able to shut down the company without the help of the ARU.

Despite the absence of the porters and the disappointing refusal of the railroad brotherhoods to support the boycott, the ARU was able to shut down rail traffic in twenty-seven states from Chicago to the west coast. In Chicago, the nation’s rail hub, strikers benefited from the support of Mayor John Hopkins. As a retail merchant, Hopkins had rented four stores in Pullman’s Arcade in the mid-1880s, but a falling-out made him a bitter enemy of Pullman. After being elected mayor in December 1893, Hopkins made the cause of the Pullman workers his own, allowed Chicago police to collect charity for them, and kept police from interfering in the strike while it remained peaceful. Indeed, support for the strikers was widespread in the city. Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, remembered returning to Chicago on July 9, to find “almost everyone on Halsted Street wearing a white ribbon, the emblem of the strikers' side.”

The strike also benefited from the neutrality of Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld (left) elected in 1892 with strong labor support. Altgeld had pardoned three Haymarket anarchists (four others had been hanged in 1887) and issued an accompanying message in which he declared the trial in which they had been convicted an injustice. During the early part of the strike Altgeld refused to send militia to Chicago.

The GMA, however, was just as determined to crush the fledgling ARU before it was powerful enough to meet the railroad corporations on an equal footing. From the minutes of its secret meetings, it is clear that the GMA operated in harmony with the Pullman company’s objectives and was bent on bringing the federal government into the conflict. They had allies in Washington. President Grover Cleveland’s Attorney General Richard Olney, himself a former railroad attorney, viewed the strike as a test of the constitutional order threatened by anarchy and insurrection. As he put it, the strike had brought the nation “the ragged edge of anarchy.”

Olney appointed Edwin Walker, a GMA legal advisor, as a special U.S. attorney for Chicago. On July 1, after an instance of disorder in Blue Island, south of the city, Walker wired Olney that law and order had broken down in Chicago. The next day Olney applied for and received from the federal district court in Chicago a blanket injunction preventing ARU leaders from using any method, even peaceful persuasion, to convince railroad workers and sympathizers to respect the boycott.

Illinois National Guard in PullmanThe injunction rested on a major tenet of late nineteenth century jurisprudence that individuals had a fundamental legal right to liberty of contract in the market. Under the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which the court invoked, the federal government had the power to prevent combinations, trusts, or any unreasonable restraint on such a right in the realm of interstate commerce; and the courts deemed the ARU boycott a conspiracy in the service of such a restraint.4 On July 4, President Cleveland dispatched the first detachment of 10,000 federal troops to Chicago, despite the absence of more than episodic instances of violence and over the strong protests of Governor Altgeld, who declared that his state was quite able to deal with disorder on its own.

Labor and its supporters were outraged that the courts had used the Sherman Act against labor rather than against the trusts against whom Congress had intended. Based on the application of the Sherman Act by the courts in the first seven years of its existence, it appeared that combination was acceptable when it concerned business firms, but not among employees.

The injunction and the arrival of federal troops (pictured below) turned the tide of the strike. The largely peaceful conduct of the strike quickly degenerated into clashes between the strike’s working-class partisans and the federal troops, who were greatly resented. The forces of order were soon joined by the Illinois militia, which Gov. Altgeld belatedly sent to the city to intervene between Chicago citizens and the provocative bluecoats. Clashes were greatest when troops protected strikebreakers operating trains in defiance of the boycott. Altogether, state militia, federal marshals, and others killed thirteen people and seriously wounded 53 others. The injunction and the violence that attended its enforcement also turned public opinion, once supportive, against the boycott.

As early as July 5, Debs recognized the strike’s dire prospects and offered to call it off in return for arbitration, but Pullman would have none of it. The next day Debs turned to the rest of organized labor. Chicago’s trade unionists were outraged at the blatant partiality of the federal government and were disposed toward calling a citywide general strike. To avert this, top national union leaders, led by American Federation of Labor president, Samuel Gompers rushed to Chicago. Meeting at Briggs House on July 12, they counseled against any sympathy action that might embroil other unions in a conflict destined for defeat. About 25,000 Chicago unionists did strike for one day in sympathy, but the Pullman boycott was now doomed. Meanwhile, Debs and ARU leaders were arrested for violating the injunction.

The walkout remained strong in many Western railroad centers through the end of July. But given the injunction, the presence of troops in the strike’s center and in other locales as well, and the absence of support from public opinion or the rest of organized labor, the strike was effectively over by mid-July. On August 2, the ARU officially ended the boycott. The strike lingered in Pullman until September when two thousand Pullman strikers surrendered unconditionally. The railroads and the Pullman company rehired most strikers once they renounced the union; they blacklisted the strike’s leaders. America’s greatest strike had ended with a wimper.

Eugene V. Debs: Pullman Strike Leader and Socialist

Eugene Victor Debs was America’s most popular twentieth-century socialist and one of the great strike leaders and working-class heroes in the country’s history. Born in the Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855, his Alsatian parents named him after two great French social realist novelists, Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. At the time, Terre Haute was a booming coal and railroad town, and at age 15 the young Debs started working on the railroads. Five years later, he was respected enough to be elected secretary of the local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.

Eugene V. DebsDuring his youth, Debs imbibed the small town values of upwardly mobile skilled workers in the railroad brotherhoods. He was a strong believer in the Protestant work ethic of industry, frugality, sobriety, and benevolence. These virtues enabled skilled workmen to earn sufficient income to support their wives at home, achieve dignity and respect within their communities, and sustain their own autonomy or “manliness.” To Debs and his fellow workmen, the independence and community standing that resulted from these manly values secured citizenship to the common man and kept the American republic from degenerating into various forms of tyranny. Much of Debs’s subsequent life could be comprehended as an elaboration and transformation of this seminal set of commitments.

The engine that drove that transformation was Debs’s experience as a union man confronting the new labor policies of the railroad corporations. In the early phases of railroad development, the railroad corporations paid skilled workers premium wages, acquiesced in their work rules, and accepted collective bargaining. But by the mid-1880s, railroad managers responded to labor scarcity and cutthroat competition by reclassifying occupations, adopting individualized pay schemes, and cutting wages. These policy shifts resulted in three great strikes during the late 1880s: the Reading Railroad strike of 1887, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Strike of 1888, and the New York Central strike of 1890. Each strike resulted in union defeat, and each defeat could be attributed to mutual scabbing by the railroad brotherhoods and the railroad workers organized by the Knights of Labor. The conclusions that Debs drew from these defeats permanently modified his earlier conceptions.

First, Debs came to believe that individualism could not be achieved in isolation from his fellows; accepting a condition of mutual dependence was not a negation of manliness but a higher form of it—brotherhood. Debs new belief in working-class solidarity manifested itself in his indefatigable efforts to create unity among the railroad brotherhoods. During the late 1880s and early 1890s he led his fellow skilled railroad workers in experimenting with various forms of federation of the existing craft brotherhoods. But, none were successful.

Debs also modified his earlier belief in class harmony, which had led him as a young man to oppose the strikers during the 1877 railroad strike and to view local railroad entrepreneur William Riley McKeen as his role model. He now began to view the trusts and corporations as enemies of workingmen’s manliness and as new forms of tyranny threatening the American Republic. For these reasons he began to use republican language to endorse working-class resistance to corporate despotism.

In 1893, Debs’s guiding principle had become that of the Knights of Labor: “an injury to one is the concern of all.” He decided to form the American Railway Union (ARU), which included unskilled and skilled workers in a single organization. It was the first large national industrial union, a forerunner of the great industrial organizations that formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1936. The ARU’s support for the Pullman workers’ strike in 1894 was an extension of the Knights’ principle and the most spectacular example of the sympathy strike in American history. A national organization, which by then boasted 150,000 members, struck not to secure any demands of its own, but rather to help several thousand Pullman workers win their strike.

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.

For violating an injunction against the strike, Debs served six months in Illinois’ Woodstock prison. While incarcerated, Socialist Victor Berger brought him Karl Marx’s Das Kapital to read, and Debs began to consider the possibilities of socialism as a an alternative to capitalism. When released from prison, Debs was not yet—contrary to legend—a Marxian socialist, but he had become a working-class martyr. He arrived in Chicago from Woodstock by train, and was met by 100,000 people who had gathered despite the pouring rain. There, Debs delivered his famous “Liberty” speech in which he connected the cause of labor to that of the American revolutionaries of 1776 and declared his imprisonment a flagrant violation of constitutional principles. He had become more than a hero to late nineteenth century workers; he had become a prophet.

By 1895, Debs was a national symbol and determined to translate his fame and spellbinding oratory into progress toward a “cooperative commonwealth.” In 1897 he convinced the remnants of the ARU to form a cooperative colony, a model utopian community in Tennessee, which would employ unemployed railroad workers. But in 1898 with the depression over, Debs followed Berger into electoral politics; he threw his considerable talents into formation of the Social Democracy of America. In 1901, the Social Democracy merged with other factions to form the Socialist Party of America (SPA).

The SPA was the first working-class socialist party not dominated by immigrants and with a majority of its members speakers of English. It brought together a heterogenous group of socialists: Berger’s Milwaukee German trade unionists, Morris Hillquit’s New York City Jewish socialists based in the garment industry, ex-Populists from the American Southwest; Midwest small town socialists; and syndicalist “wobblies” (members of the Industrial Workers of the World). It also served as home for a diverse and distinguished group of Americans: Bill Haywood, William English Walling, Kate Richards O’Hare, Rose Pastor Stokes, Florence, Kelley, Sidney Hillman, Margaret Sanger, A. Philip Randolph, Abraham Cahan, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Walter Lippmann; and, later in the century, Norman Thomas, Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, and Michael Harrington. For these factions and individuals Debs served as a unifying symbol and rallying figure. Debs ran five times as the party’s standard bearer for President of the United States, receiving almost 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912. In 1920 he ran for President from prison, where he was serving a sentence for opposing America’s involvement in World War I, and received a million votes.

The Pullman Strike: Consequences, Trends, and Legacies

The Pullman Strike was only the most spectacular of a number of disturbing events during the 1890s, which marked that decade as a crisis period for a decaying order of competitive individualism and proprietary capitalism. During this crisis, a massive depression (1893-98), bitter class conflict including two large strikes in the bituminous coal industry as well as the Pullman Strike, a national insurgency of the Populist Party which threatened the dominance of the two major parties, and a closely watched march of thousands of unemployed workers on Washington D.C., created the boundary line between the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century and the Progressive Era of the early twentieth.

While labor was clearly the loser of the Pullman Strike and most unions suffered membership losses due to the depression, the trajectory of American labor organization and power still pointed forward and upward. With the end of the depression, unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) resumed their growth. Between 1897 and 1904, the AFL grew from 447,000 to 2.1 million members. By 1903, Chicago’s unions had organized 350,000 members, representing almost 50 percent of the city’s workforce.

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 devastating defeat of the ARU was also a setback for a type of unionism—industrial unionism--that enrolled all workers employed by an industry, regardless of their craft or skill level. Though industrial unions, such as the United Mine Workers flourished, the vast majority of AFL unions remained occupational or craft unions like the railroad brotherhoods. But, the defeat of industrial unionism did not prevent the organization of the new groups of workers. By the turn of the century, most craft unions began organizing workers outside their craft, many of them less skilled laborers. By 1915, only 28 of 135 unions active in the labor movement could still be classified as craft unions. Historians have coined the term “craft-industrial” unions to describe these new unions that dominated the Progressive Era.

The rise of large business corporations, the widespread use of the labor injunction against strikes and boycotts, and the inability of labor to organize in corporate-run industry led many workers and their middle class allies to turn to socialism. Here, too, the events of the Pullman Strike prophesied the future. Following his incarceration for violating a court injunction, Eugene V. Debs spent six months in prison and began to investigate the possibilities of socialism. After avowing himself a socialist in 1897, he emerged as the leading spokesperson for the Socialist Party of America during the first two decades of the twentieth century and served five times as its presidential candidate.

The turn of many Americans toward socialism was part of a larger transformation going on in American liberalism. According to nineteenth century liberal doctrine, Americans could trust individual liberty and free competition in the market to secure the public good. The corollary to this public faith was that government should remain severely limited and relegated to protecting and extending the market and providing individuals with the resources—usually land and education—necessary for property ownership. But, the advent of industrial capitalism turned the majority of Americans working outside the household into non-propertied wageworkers. At the same time, individually-owned businesses gave way to trusts and large, consolidated business corporations.

Especially after the great merger wave of 1897-1904, the new managers of these corporations began to replace the market’s “invisible hand” with the corporation’s “visible hand.” Corporate bureaucracies regulated their firms’ investment, production, and pricing policies; and the demand for its products and services. Like Pullman, many of these managers targeted the middle class consumers’ taste for luxury and quality and thus pioneered a new consumer culture. Also like Pullman, many implemented corporate welfare programs for their workers to promote loyalty, though few tried to control their workers’ lives to the extent that Pullman had done.

Jane AddamsIn law and government Americans began to accept the efficacy and benevolence of a corporate-dominated economy and society. During the Progressive Era, they amended the Sherman Act and set up government commissions to regulate the behavior of corporations rather than seeking to break them up and return to the outdated competitive economy. Building on this new trend, labor leaders contended that they had the same right to organize and regulate the labor market as the corporations did the product markets. The Pullman Strike was an important turning point in this regard. President Cleveland’s Strike Commission issued a report four months after the strike that rejected “the theory that competition would amply protect shippers as to rates, etc. and employees as to wages and other conditions.” It endorsed collective bargaining, though its full realization would await the New Deal. Even Richard Olney, the U.S. Attorney General who had asked for the injunction that defeated the boycott, had a change of heart. He sponsored the Erdman Act passed by Congress in 1898 that outlawed yellow-dog contracts requiring workers to renounce unions as a condition of employment, recognized the railroad brotherhoods for purposes of collective bargaining, and inaugurated a long era of government intervention on behalf of labor peace on the railroads. In 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt faced another national strike that affected interstate commerce, he didn’t dispatch troops; instead he set up an arbitration commission.

In this new era it was far more difficult to sustain an older paternalism in which white male wielders of property like Pullman could be trusted to stand in judgment of the interests of those under them. Jane Addams (pictured at left), the founder of Hull House, who had been rebuffed in her effort to mediate the strike, wrote an essay shortly after its defeat in which she compared Pullman to Shakespeare’s King Lear and his embattled workers to Lear’s daughter, Cordelia. To Addams, the labor movement represented the ‘social claim”—the principles of human sympathy and the public good—that Pullman’s paternalism distorted and denied in the interest of private profit. Addams argued not for the victory of the labor over capital, but rather for a broadened public interest that included the two sides.

There was an unmistakable implication of Addams’s article that most observers of the Pullman strike missed. The same rejection of an autocratic paternalism that the public increasingly accepted on behalf of workers should be accorded to daughters and wives within the patriarchal family. Thus, for Addams, the counterpart of the labor movement was the autonomous woman. Leading magazines rejected a “ Modern Lear” and it took until 1912 for Addams to publish the article. By then, a less well understood legacy of the Pullman strike—the political activism of women outside the bounds of the family—was already playing a leading role in Progressive reform.

A Short list of Suggested Documents 

Jane Addams, "A Modern Lear." The Survey, 29 (November 2, 1912): 131-137.

Rev. William H. Carwardine. The Pullman Strike. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1894. Use letters on pp. 101-117.

Chicago Tribune, May 14, 1894 (Description of Pullman manufacturing system)

Chicago Times, Dec. 10-14, 1893 (Articles discussing conditions in town as a result of the depression)

Eugene V. Debs, "Liberty" in Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches (Girard, KS, 1908): 327-44. (Speech delivered by Debs on his release from prison)

IN RE DEBS, 158 U.S. 564 (1895) (Court decision justifying injunction against strike)

Richard T. Ely, "Pullman: A Social Study," Harpers Weekly 70 (February 1885): 452-66.

Mrs. H. E. Starrett, "Pullman -- A Social, and Industrial Study," Weekly Magazine(Sept. 16, 1882).

U.S. Strike Commission, Report of the Chicago Strike of June-July 1894 by the United States Strike Commission (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894). (Report itself prefaces the testimony, which takes up the bulk of the volume)

Carroll Wright, "The Chicago Strike," Publications of the American Economic Association 9 (Oct. and Dec. 1894).


Stanley Buder, Pullman, An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Susan Eleanor Hirsch, After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Liston E. Leyendecker, Palace Car Prince: A Biography of George Mortimer Pullman. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1992.

Almont Lindsey, “Paternalism and the Pullman Strike.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jan., 1939): 272-289.

Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, The Haymarket Bomb and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Harry Barnard. Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld. Secaucus, New Jersey: Lyle Stuart, 1938.

Rev. William H. Carwardine. The Pullman Strike. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1894.

Almont Lindsey. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Donald L. McMurray. “Labor Policies of the General Managers’ Association of Chicago, 1886-1894.” Journal of Economic History. Vol. 13 (Spring 1953): 160-78.

Nick Salvatore. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

Richard Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Richard Schneirov, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore eds.. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Shelton Stromquist. A Generation of Boomers: The Pattern of Railroad Labor Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

United States Strike Commission. Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July 1894. 53rd Cong. 3rd sess. Sen. Exec. Doc. No. 4.. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1895.

Stephen Burwood. “Debsian Socialism Through a Transnational Lens.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Vol. 2, No. 3 (July 2003): 253-82.

J. Robert Constantine ed.. Letters of Eugene V. Debs. 3 volumes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Eugene V. Debs. Eugene. Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 2002.

“Papers of Eugene V. Debs.” Indiana State University. Library Special Collections. (also available on microfilm)

Jacob H. Dorn, “In Spiritual Communion: Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Christians.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Vol. 2, No. 3 (July 2003): 303-325.

Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1949.

“Lincoln Steffens’ interview of Eugene V. Debs.” in Ronald Radosh. Debs. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Jane Addams, “A Modern Lear.” The Survey, 29 (November 2, 1912): 131-137. Available online:

Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Daniel R. Ernst. Lawyers Against Labor: From Individual Rights to Corporate Liberalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Mary O. Furner. “Knowing Capitalism: Public Investigation of the Labor Question in the Long Progressive Era.” in Mary O. Furner and Barry Supple, eds.. The State and Economic Knowledge: The American and British Experiences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Robyn Muncy. Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890-1935. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Bruno Ramirez. When Workers Fight: The Politics of Industrial Relations in the Progressive Era. 1898-1916. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Martin J. Sklar. The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, The Law and Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.