Howard Zinn on the history of the militant struggle of workers at the Pullman railway car company in Chicago against wage cuts and sackings.
Coming two years after the massive Homstead steel strike, in June 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked out. One can get an idea of the kind of support they got, mostly from the immediate vicinity of Chicago, in the first months of the strike, from a list of contributions put together by the Reverend William H. Carwardine, a Methodist pastor in the company town of Pullman for three years (he was sent away after he supported the strikers):
Typographical Union #16, Painters and Decorators Union #147, Carpenters’ Union No. 23, Thirty-fourth Ward Republican Club, Grand Crossing Police, Hyde Park Water Department, Picnic at Gardener’s Park, Milk Dealers' Union, Hyde Park Liquor Dealers, Fourteenth Precinct Police Station, Swedish Concert, Chicago Fire Department, German Singing Society, Cheque from Anaconda, Montana
The Pullman strikers appealed to a convention of the American Railway Union for support:
Mr. President and Brothers of the American Railway Union. We struck at Pullman because we were without hope. We joined the American Railway Union because it gave us a glimmer of hope. Twenty thousand souls, men, women and little ones, have their eyes turned toward this convention today, straining eagerly through dark despondency for a glimmer of the heaven-sent message you alone can give us on this earth.
You all must know that the proximate cause of our strike was the discharge of two members of our grievance committee. Five reductions in wages. The last was the most severe, amounting to nearly thirty per cent, and rents had not fallen.
Water which Pullman buys from the city at 8 cents a thousand gallons he retails to us at 500 percent advance. . . . Gas which sells at 75 cents per thousand feet in Hyde Park, just north of us, he sells for $2.25. 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.
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.
The American Railway Union responded. It asked its members all over the country not to handle Pullman cars. Since virtually all passenger trains had Pullman cars, this amounted to a boycott of all trains—a nationwide strike. Soon all traffic on the twenty-four railroad lines leading out of Chicago had come to a halt. Workers derailed freight cars, blocked tracks, pulled engineers off trains if they refused to cooperate. 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. The following day, the state militia moved in, and the Chicago Times reported on what followed:
Company C. Second Regiment…disciplined a mob of rioters yesterday afternoon at Forty-ninth and Loomis Streets. ‘the police assisted and... finished the job. There is no means of knowing how many rioters were killed or wounded. The mob carried off many of its dying and injured.
A crowd of five thousand gathered. Rocks were thrown at the militia, and the command was given to fire. To say that the mob went wild is but a weak expression... The command to charge was given… From that moment only bayonets were used… A dozen men in the front line of rioters received bayonet wounds. Tearing up cobble stones, the mob made a determined charge… the word was passed along the line for each officer to take care of himself. One by one, as occasion demanded, they fired point blank into the crowd. The police followed with their clubs. A wire fence enclosed the track. The rioters had forgotten it; when they turned to fly they were caught in a trap.
The police were not inclined to be merciful, and driving the mob against the barbed wires clubbed it unmercifully... The crowd outside the fence rallied to the assistance of the rioters… The shower of stones was incessant.
The ground over which the fight had occurred was like a battlefield. The men shot by the troops and police lay about like logs. In Chicago that day, thirteen people were killed, 53 seriously wounded, 700 arrested. Before the strike was over, perhaps 34 were dead. With 14,000 police, militia, troops in Chicago, the strike was crushed.
Union leader Eugene 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 civilisation would be downward; after a while we would reach the point where there would be no resistance, and slavery would come.”
Debs, in court, denied he was a socialist. But during his six months in prison, he studied socialism and talked to fellow prisoners who were socialists. Later he wrote: “I was to be baptised in Socialism in the roar of conflict . . . in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed. . . . This was my first practical struggle in Socialism.” Two years after he came out of prison, Debs wrote in the Railway Times:
"The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilisation. The time has come to regenerate society—we are on the eve of a universal change."
This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States. We heartily recomment you buy A People's History of the United States now. OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added