The Pullman strike, 1894 - Jeremy Brecher

Striking railway workers confront the National Guard in Chicago, 1894
Striking railway workers confront the National Guard in Chicago, 1894

Jeremy Brecher's excellent history of the massive but ultimately unsuccessful boycott and strike by the American Railway Union led by Eugene Debs against the tyrannical Pullman Palace Car Company.

Submitted by Steven. on June 23, 2013

If you enjoyed this book, please purchase Strike! by Jeremy Brecher here.
In 1893, the US went through a serious depression, prompting widespread wage cuts and layoffs, which provoked a nationwide strike of miners.

But these cuts extended far beyond the miners. An extreme example of the prevalent wage cuts occurred at the works of the Pullman Palace Car Company at Pullman, Illinois. The entire town - land, houses, stores, churches, and all-was owned by George Pullman.

Rents were deducted from wages by the company, and were unreduced as wages fell. The result, according to the minister of the Pullman Methodist-Episcopal Church was that

After deducting rent the men invariably had only from one to six dollars or so on which to live for two weeks. One man has a pay check in his possession of two cents after paying rent. . . . He has it framed.1

During March and April, 1894, a majority of the workers at Pullman joined a new organization called the American Railway Union, which had started at the beginning of the depression. The Pullman employees, although not railroad workers, were able to join because Pullman owned a few miles of railroad, and anyone who worked for a railroad company - even a coal miner or longshoreman - was eligible. Indeed, the whole purpose of the A.R.U. was to overcome the disunity among railroad workers by uniting them - and eventually all labor - into a single organization. As its president, Eugene Victor Debs, put it,

The forces of labor must unite. The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become unperceptible, and then labor's hosts, marshalled under one conquering banner, shall march together, vote together and fight together, until working men shall receive and enjoy all the fruits of their toil.2

Despite this objective the A.R.U. maintained the railroad brotherhoods' traditional principle of including only white workers, with the consequence that some blacks gladly took railroad jobs during the great strike. That, however, did not prevent Chicago blacks from taking part in the movement to the extent of tipping over railroad cars in their own neighborhoods.3

The first major event in which the A.R.U. was involved was a strike on the Great Northern Railroad, controlled by James J. Hill. Three times within a year the Great Northern had cut wages; three times the officers of the railroad brotherhoods had recommended that the men accept the cuts.4 Disgusted, a number of the men had joined the A.R.U. Under its rules - in contrast to those of the brotherhoods - a strike could be called by a majority of members on the railroad line involved.

After the third wage cut, the A.R.U. members on the Great Northern declared a strike - although the A.R.U. was so new that not a single lodge had as yet been organized.5 The strike was supported not only by A.R. U. members, but by a great many other workers, including even the rank and file of the railroad brotherhoods. Even though brotherhood officials helped the company recruit strikebreakers to run the trains, the strike stopped all freight traffic on the line without recourse to blockade. Within little more than two weeks, the company was forced to accept an arbitration decision that was practically a complete victory for the workers.

The victory over Jim Hill in 1894 had much the same results for the A.R.U. that the victory over Jay Gould had had for the Knights of Labor in 1885. Coming in the midst of rising discontent and a series of defeats, the victory dramatized for workers everywhere the possibility and power of solidarity. Workers flooded into the A.R.U. According to Ray Ginger, Debs' biographer,

The officers were unable to pass out charters fast enough to keep pace with the applications. Entire lodges of the Railway Carmen and the Switchmen transferred to the A.R.U. Firemen, conductors, even engineers, joined the industrial union. But the great majority of recruits came from previously unorganized men who had been unable to meet the high monthly dues of the Brotherhoods. [Indeed, a large proportion of them were not even eligible for membership in the restricted Brotherhoods.] The unskilled workers had been unprotected, underpaid, exploited; now the dikes snapped and a reservoir of bitterness and hope drove men pell-mell into the American Railway Union. . . The officials did not have to coax or persuade; their main job was to sign cards and issue charters.6

Within a year, the A.R.U. had 150,000 members, more than all the old brotherhoods together and only 25,000 fewer than the entire A.F.L.7 The new spirit of unity that imbued the railroad workers was revealed when the auditing clerks on one Western railroad wanted to organize, but were told by the company that any clerk joining the A.R. U. would be fired on the spot. The switchmen called on the manager and warned him not to threaten the clerks. "During a grave depression, when unemployed men stood on every street corner, such action seemed suicidal, but the switchmen made it stick, and for the first time a railroad office was filled with union men."8 This spirit was what made possible the great Pullman boycott of 1894.

The workers at Pullman sent a grievance committee to visit the manager. When three members of the committee were fired on May 10th, sentiment for a strike reached a fever pitch. At an all night session of the grievance committee, two top A.R.U. officials strongly advised against a strike and Debs wired caution, but "Howard's oratory, Keliher's ebullient charm, and Debs' influence all went for nothing."9 The committee voted unanimously to strike. The strikers held open meetings daily at which reports of committees were given and matters of policy decided; a central strike committee with representatives of each local union directed the strike. Three hundred strikers guarded the Pullman works day and night. The strike was a desperation move. As a strike spokesman put it:

We do not expect the company to concede our demands. We do not know what the outcome will be, and in fact we do not care much. We do know we are working for less wages than will maintain ourselves and our families in the necessaries of life, and on that proposition we absolutely refuse to work any longer.10

A month after the strike began, the American Railway Union held its first regular convention. The workers at Pullman appealed to the convention for aid. For the 400 delegates, many of whom had visited Pullman, the issue became symbolic of everything they hated - the poverty of the workers, the arrogance of George Pullman, and the overwhelming power of the corporation. According to Ginger,

Debs now used every rein of control in the hands of a chairman. His shrewdness, his eloquence, his influence, were all thrown into battle against headstrong action, and, in the end, they all went for nothing. The entire hall was filled with muffled, bitter comments: George Pullman had gone too far. It was time to show the bloodsucker. The A.R.U. should boycott all Pullman cars, not move a single sleeper until Pullman settled with his workers. . . . Finally one man spoke for dozens of men: A boycott against Pullman cars should be declared immediately. Debs, in his calmest voice, refused to entertain the motion. . . . Above everything else, he wanted to avoid a boycott on Pullman cars.11

The leadership of the union did everything possible to avoid a sympathetic strike. But when Pullman refused arbitration, saying there was "nothing to arbitrate,"12 and even to arbitrate whether there was anything to arbitrate, a committee of the A.R.U. convention urged that a boycott of Pullman cars be instituted. When the delegates wired home for instructions they found sentiment overwhelmingly in favor of the plan, and they voted unanimously to apply it.

Of course, it was not solely sympathy for the workers at Pullman that led the railroad workers to such an extraordinary decision. Debs himself put clearly the reasons for this sudden development of solidarity. The railroad employees had lost confidence in the Brotherhoods because they "had failed, in a single instance, to successfully resist" the wage cuts gradually sweeping the country. All of the delegates, therefore, came to the A.R.U. convention expecting to act to -

restore their wages and to protect them in their rights and wages as employees. This is the reason that they were so ripe to espouse the cause of the injured Pullman employees. . . . While the injuries and grievances of the Pullman employees appealed to their sense of justice and to their sense of duty for redress, these further grievances of their own made the matter more binding upon them. . . to do everything in their power to protect the Pullman employees, as well as their constituents. . . .13

The testimony of workers from around the country gives a picture of those grievances. At La Salle, 100 miles west of Chicago, the workers had voted to strike even before the Pullman boycott was called, to protest the firing of A.R.U. members.14 At Des Moines, Iowa, the main grievance was "the radical change in the rules of the company concerning promotion and priority," putting extra workers on the employment rolls and using the surplus to drive down wages and forestall strikes.15 At Rock Island, "some six or seven. . . men were discharged, which caused a very restless feeling among the men . . . and when it was learned that switchmen on the Rock Island had been discharged as members of the A.R.U., for refusing to handle Pullman cars, they took a vote in the local union and decided to take the same stand the members of the union did in Chicago."16 On the Grand Trunk railroad one official "would get so drunk he did not know anything and then go around and dictate to men that did know their business. . . " while another would "pry into the affairs of the men and. . . cut the force down to such an extent that a man was dogged around and chased around as though he was not human in order to get the work done." In addition, the Grand Trunk used inexperienced road officials to do switching while laying off regular switchmen.17 On the B&O, the complaints were "favoritism, pets, and maladministration of some of the petty officers."18 On the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago, engineers and foremen were deprived of paid dinner hours they had won in a previous agreement.19 One fireman summarized:

"there was a feeling among railroad men in general that I had occasion to meet that there was going to be a reduction of wages on nearly every road throughout the country. . . . In a large number of roads there was a feeling among the employees that they were almost in a helpless condition to stand against the oppression of the petty officials, and the petty officials took advantage of that feeling and deviled the men. . . "20

The boycott began on June 26th, 1894, when switchmen on a number of lines out of Chicago refused to switch Pullman cars. They were instantly fired, leading other workers on the lines to walk off in protest. Two days later, four or five Chicago railroads were stopped, with 18,000 men on strike. This was what Debs and the other A.R. U. officials had expected; but they were greatly surprised as committees and groups of railroad workers from all over started appearing at the strike headquarters, announcing that their local unions had decided to strike in support of the Pullman workers.21 Soon virtually all twenty-six roads out of Chicago were paralyzed, and all transcontinental lines except the Great Northern - which carried no Pullman cars - were stopped. The struggle extended to twenty-seven states and territories. An estimated 260,000 railroad workers, nearly half of them not members of the A.R. U., joined the strike; Bradstreet's estimated that 500,000 were out of work because of the strike.

Coming at the same time as the coal strike, the Pullman boycott represented a social crisis of the first order. The New York Times saw in it "the greatest battle between labor and capital that has ever been inaugurated in the United States."22 By July 3rd, the Chicago Tribune declared that the strike had attained the "dignity of an insurrection."23

Direction of the action moved on two levels. The A.R.U. convention had left the conduct of the strike in charge of its President Eugene Debs and its executive board. They rapidly set up a strike headquarters and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the strike in Chicago. These officials articulated the strikers' position, formulated aims, counselled non-violence, held daily mass meetings in Chicago, and sent out hundreds of telegrams a day encouraging the strikers. Operational control, however, rested in the strike committees that sprang up within each body of strikers. As Debs explained it, "The committees came from all yards and from all roads to confer with us. The switchmen, for instance, would send a committee to us, and we would authorize that committee to act for that yard or for that road, and that committee would then go to that yard and take charge of the affairs."24 The A.R.U. officials consulted daily with these committees in shaping strike decisions. The committees also served in part to contain the strike within the limits set by the leadership, although this was by no means always the case; for example, when the Mobile and Ohio Railroad offered not to run Pullman cars, the A.R.U. advised the workers there to call off their strike, but they refused because they felt it would weaken the unity of the strike.25 This informal structure of strike committees allowed the coordination of the strike over a vast area of the country despite the lack of organized preparations.

The conflict rapidly came to be understood as a general struggle between all workers and the corporations as a whole. The General Managers' Association, which represented the twenty-six Chicago railroads, served as a general staff for management, planning strategy, recruiting strikebreakers, and using its enormous power to influence public opinion and the government. As Debs wrote in an appeal to the railroad workers of America to support the strike,

The struggle with the Pullman Company has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of the country. . . . The fight was between the American Railway Union and the Pullman Company. The American Railway Union resolved that its members would refuse to handle Pullman cars and equipment. Then the railway corporations, through the General Managers' Association, came to the rescue, and in a series of whereases declared to the world that they would go into partnership with Pullman, so to speak, and stand by him in his devilish work of starving his employees to death. The American Railway Union accepted the gage of war, and thus the contest is now on between the railway corporations united solidly upon the one hand and the labor forces on the other. . . .26

The strike was effective beyond anyone's expectation. For the week ending June 30th, 1894, ten trunk-line railroads out of Chicago carried 42,892 tons of eastbound freight; for the week ending July 7th they carried only 11,600; the Baltimore and Ohio carried fifty-two tons and the Big Four Railroad carried not one ton.27

As Debs wrote later, the strike was won as far as beating the railroad companies was concerned; "the combined corporations were paralyzed and helpless."28 Even John Egan' of the General Managers' Association admitted by July 2nd that the railroads had been "fought to a standstill."29

But by June 30th the legal committee of the G.M.A. had worked out detailed plans to bring a power against the workers which the A.R.U. had not reckoned on - the United States government. According to Almont Lindsey's careful study, The Pullman Strike:

A vital part of the strategy of the association was to draw the United States government into the struggle and then to make it appear that the battle was no longer between the workers and the railroads but between the workers and the government. . . it was the policy of the roads not to alleviate the inconvenience in transportation but rather to aggravate this condition wherever possible, in order to arouse the anger of the travelling public and thus hasten action by the federal authorities.30

In line with this policy, John Egan of the G.M.A. on July 2nd called for the use of Federal troops, since there was no "other recourse left." With these troops, "the strike would collapse like a punctured balloon. It is the government's duty to take this business in hand, restore law, suppress the riots, and restore to the public the service it is now deprived of by conspirators and lawless men."31

President Cleveland and his Attorney General, Richard Olney, were more than happy to use the force of the U.S. government to crush the strike. Olney, for thirty-five years a railroad lawyer and still a director of several railroads (including one involved in the boycott) considered the strike an attack on railroad property and corporate control. The administration decided to break the strike in Chicago, for, as Olney confided to a trusted agent there, "if the rights of the United States were vigorously asserted in Chicago, the origin and center of the demonstration, the result would be to make it a failure everywhere else and to prevent its spread over the entire country."32 Grover Cleveland concurred in this strategy; as he wrote years later-

It was from the first anticipated that [Chicago] would be the seat of the most serious complications, and the place where the strong arm of the law would be needed. In these circumstances, it would have been criminal neglect of duty if those charged with the protection of governmental agencies and the enforcement of orderly obedience and submission to federal authority, had been remiss in preparations for an emergency in that quarter.33

Olney's first move was to appoint Edwin Walker, a member of the G.M.A.'s legal committee and general counsel for one of the struck railways, a special Federal Attorney in Chicago. His next was to secure a blanket injunction forbidding all strike activities- even attempting by persuasion to induce an employee to abandon his job.34 Soon such blanket injunctions covered the country from Michigan to California, putting all strike supporters in contempt of court. One of the judges issuing the first injunction proudly called it a "Gatling gun on paper."35

As the editor of the Chicago Times observed, "the object of the injunction is not so much to prevent interference with the trains as to lay a foundation for calling out the United States troops."36

On July 2nd, the Federal Marshal in Chicago read the injunction to a jeering crowd outside Chicago; the crowd responded by dragging baggage cars across the tracks to prevent the passage of trains. The next day he wired Olney, warning that a general strike was expected and saying, "1 am unable to disperse the mob, clear the tracks, or arrest the men who were engaged in the acts named, and believe that no force less than the regular troops of the United States can procure the passage of the mail trains or enforce the orders of the court."37 Over the protest of Governor Altgeld of Illinois, Federal troops marched into Chicago. Attorney General Olney told reporters, "We have been brought to the ragged edge of anarchy and it is time to see whether the law is sufficiently strong to prevent this condition of affairs."38

Until Federal troops arrived, the strike in Chicago had been extraordinarily peaceful. Debs and the other A.R.U. officials had told the workers that violence would play into the hands of the companies, and that the strike could be won simply by the refusal of the railroad workers to work. With the U.S. Army on the scene to break the strike, however, such a peaceful victory was no longer possible, and the popular mood shifted rapidly. As an A.R.U. official testified later, "the people of America have been treated so unfairly - I do not speak of myself, but from the experience we had in going through the country - that the very sight of a blue coat arouses their anger; they feel it is another instrument of oppression that has come, and they are liable to do things they would not do if the blue coats were kept away."39 The prevailing atmosphere is suggested by Debs' statement when troops were sent in:

The first shot fired by the regular soldiers at the mobs here will be the signal for a civil war. I believe this as firmly as I believe in the ultimate success of our course. Bloodshed will follow, and 90% of the people of the U.S. will be arrayed against the other 10%. And I would not care to be arrayed against the laboring people in the contest, or find myself out of the ranks of labor when the struggle ended. I do not say this as an alarmist, but calmly and thoughtfully.40

General Nelson Miles, commander of the U.S. troops in Chicago, likewise believed there was danger that the civil government and authority of the United States would be paralyzed, if not overthrown, as a result of the conflict.41

Violent confrontation did in fact follow the arrival on July 4th of U.S. troops in Chicago. That night, crowds began to gather on railroad property, overturning boxcars and resisting authority.

They were not composed of railroad workers, but of the most depressed part of the working class - immigrants, unemployed, unskilled. Next day the crowds grew, throwing switches, changing signal lights, blocking tracks with toppled boxcars. The largest crowd, numbering 10,000, started at the stockyards and moved slowly eastward all day along the Rock Island Line. The general sentiment was caught by a crowd that marched through railroad yards calling out workers, yelling that it was a "fight between labor and capital, and they must come out."42 That night a great fire broke out, destroying seven structures at the World's Columbian Exposition, while at many other points railroad cars were fired.

Next morning, a railroad agent on the Illinois Central shot two members of a crowd. The crowd retaliated by burning the yards. The action spread to other lines, peaking that night when the crowd destroyed 700 cars at the Panhandle yards in South Chicago. In one day, the crowds destroyed railroad property valued at $340,000.

The total armed forces occupying Chicago, including Federal troops, state militia, and deputy marshals hired and paid by the railroads, reached 14,000. In the course of the intermittent warfare, thirteen people were killed and fifty-three seriously wounded. Nonetheless, the strike remained firm. The Associated Press reported on July 6th:

Despite the presence of the United States troops and the mobilization of five regiments of state militia; despite threats of martial law and bullet and bayonet, the great strike inaugurated by the American Railway Union holds three-fourths of the roads running out of Chicago in its strong fetters, and last night traffic was more fully paralyzed than at any time since the inception of the tie up.43

Meanwhile, the conflict spread across the country.

In Trinidad, Colorado, on July 1st, a large crowd captured and disarmed forty-two deputy marshalls coming into town to break the strike on the Santa Fe. Next morning, without even consulting the Populist Governor of the state, the President ordered up five companies of U.S. troops from Fort Logan. The troops cleared the tracks and protected the deputy marshals as they arrested forty-eight "ringleaders" who had made "incendiary speeches" at a meeting of the strikers. The deputy U.S. marshals were instructed to arrest without warrants anyone trying to induce railroad employees to quit, and to ignore opposition from local magistrates and officials, arresting them if they tried to intervene. This, charged Populist Governor David Waite, "allowed the U.S. Marshal to enlist a private army to suppress alleged state troubles. . . waging an active war in Colorado without any declaration thereof by the U.S. . . . and utterly in violation of law."44

The center of resistance on the Santa Fe next shifted to Raton, New Mexico, where 500 members of the A.R.U. lodge were supported by the County Sheriff and 300 striking coal miners, many of them armed. The U.S. Marshal and eighty-five deputies entered Raton with instructions to arrest the Sheriff if he interfered. They were met with such hatred in the town that hotel workers quit rather than serve them, and the hotels were thereafter staffed with deputy marshals. Meanwhile, a crowd at the little mining town of Blassburg, three miles above Raton, launched sixteen cars down the grade, crashing in Raton and blocking the tracks. Even after the Tenth Infantry arrived, the railroads were unable to move trains because of insufficient crews.

In California, public hostility toward the railroad monopolies was so great that the special Federal Attorney at Los Angeles warned Olney that he believed open rebellion an imminent possibility.45 Five companies of California militia assembled at their armory and declared their sympathy for the strike. Troops were ordered into Los Angeles following a coded report from the U.S. Attorney that heavily-armed strike sympathizers were pouring into town, and that in enforcing the injunction the U.S. government might encounter resistance from 5,000 armed men.46 The strike was finally broken in the Los Angeles vicinity by putting a detachment of troops on each train.

Meanwhile, a large number of railroad workers at Sacramento joined the strike, while hundreds more poured in from up and down the lines - including a large, heavily-armed party aboard a train they had seized at Dunsmuir. When the U.S. Marshal and his deputies tried to protect a mail train containing Pullman cars, the strikers manhandled him and disconnected the train. He then called in two regiments of the state militia, some of whom simply deserted from the ranks in open defiance of orders, while the rest were unwilling to charge or fire out of sympathy for the strikers.

Finally 542 Federal soldiers were landed in Sacramento by boat, where they cleared the railroads with fixed bayonets.

Similarly, at Oakland a large crowd occupied the railroad yards, "killing" engines and leaving them to block the tracks. When 370 sailors and marines were landed, the wives and mothers of the strikers organized a Ladies' Relief Organization and turned a local hall into a hospital, in anticipation of a battle that never occurred.

The struggle spread with great popular support throughout the Western states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Montana. In Rawling, Wyoming, the city authorities ordered all deputy marshals combatting the strike out of town. At Ogden, Utah, the strikers completely controlled the western terminal of the Union Pacific, uncoupling Pullman cars by force when necessary. They defied the U.S. Marshal, who was able to raise only a small force of deputies, and was afraid to make arrests lest he provoke a riot.

When word came that Federal troops were soon to arrive, fires were set simultaneously in seven different parts of the city. Railroad bridges were burned at Carlin, Nevada. The Great Northern, which used no Pullman cars, was the only transcontinental railroad not on strike, but when the Army planned to move troops to Helena, Montana, on it, the workers threatened to strike. The order was withdrawn.

At Dubuque and Sioux City, Iowa, switches were spiked and tracks obstructed until the Governor sent six militia companies into the latter. At Hammond, Indiana, the strikers sidetracked all Pullman cars despite the resistance of the Sheriff, the Federal Marshal, and their deputies. Large crowds ranged over the tracks attacking strikebreakers, derailing trains, and seizing a telegraph office to prevent an appeal for the militia. On July 8th, State militia and Federal soldiers both arrived in Hammond and cleared the tracks by firing indiscriminately into the crowd. "I would like to know," demanded the Mayor, "by what authority U.S. troops come in here and shoot our citizens without the slightest warning."47 In Duluth, dock workers struck in sympathy with the Pullman workers.48 At Spring Valley, Illinois, striking miners provided the resistance; when a crowd stoned a train guarded by Federal soldiers, the troops fired on them, killing two and wounding several. By the end of the Pullman strike, an estimated thirty-four people had been killed, and Federal or state troops had been called out in Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, California, and Illinois.49 General Miles maintained that only Federal troops had saved the country "from a serious rebellion."50

Meanwhile, the U.S. government proceeded systematically with its plan to break the strike in Chicago. On July 10th, Debs was arrested for conspiracy. The A.R.U. office was ransacked by Federal Marshals, who seized all books and papers in a manner even the Department of Justice later admitted was illegal. The blockade out of Chicago was finally broken by sending trains, each escorted by forty deputy marshals and a contingent of U.S. troops, along the various lines. The east-bound freight on the ten trunk lines out of Chicago, which had fallen to 4,142 tons for the week ending July 14th, had risen to 29,146 tons by the following week.51 As the United States Strike Commission which later investigated the conflict wrote,

The action of the courts deprived the A.R.U. of leadership, enabled the General Managers' Association to disintegrate its forces, and to make inroads into its ranks. The mobs had worn out their fury, or had succumbed to the combined forces of the police, the U.S. troops and marshals, and the State militia.52

Besides the government, the General Managers' Association had another powerful ally - the old railroad brotherhoods. When 400 engineers had struck on the Wabash, the head of their union denounced them and announced that unemployed engineers would be permitted to serve as strikebreakers. The union head even went so far as to recommend particular men to replace striking engineers. The chief of the Conductors took the same stand. The Brotherhood of Trainmen instructed its members to "perform their regular duties."53 Its head declared, "The triumph of this railroad strike would be the triumph of anarchy."54 It is no surprise that Everett St. John, Chairman of the General Managers' Association and himself general manager of the Rock Island line, testified

We have always gotten along comfortably well-in fact, in a very satisfactory manner-with the old orders as they exist.55

At the last moment, the strike was almost given a reprieve by the workers of Chicago. They supported the strikers passionately. Newsboys, for example, dropped newspapers which opposed the boycott into the sewers.56 On June 30th, the Trades and Labor Assembly had pledged the strength of its 150,000 members in support of the strike. It sent a committee to tell the A.R.U. that, if necessary, every union member in Chicago would strike in sympathy, but Debs at that point considered the idea too extreme.

Nonetheless, as the conflict deepened, pressures for a general strike continued to build. July 7th, the Building and Trades Council, representing 25,000 members, voted unanimously for a sympathetic strike and called for a nationwide general strike. Next day delegates from 100 Chicago unions met to decide on a strike. While working-class sentiments overwhelmingly supported such a move, many union officials objected because it would violate existing contracts with employers. But when the delegates heard that President Cleveland had issued a proclamation seeming to put Chicago virtually under martial law, and declaring that resistors would be considered "public enemies," all opposition to a general strike dissolved. Pullman was to be given until July 10th, however, to accept arbitration before the strike went into effect. This delay proved fatal, for by July 11th, Debs and the other A.R.U. officials had been arrested, the military was in complete control of the city, and the strike was clearly doomed to defeat. The result was that only about 25,000 non-railroad workers joined the strike in Chicago.57

On the demand of the Chicago unions, A.F.L. head Samuel Gompers came to Chicago, calling in as well twenty-four other national trade union officials for a conference at the Briggs House.

During the first session a committee from the Cigar Makers' Union of Chicago argued that because the struggle of the A.R.U. concerned the well-being of all workers and therefore required the complete solidarity of all labor, the conference should call for a nationwide general strike to force Pullman to arbitrate. Debs likewise suggested that a general strike be called if the railroad strikers were not permitted to return to their jobs. But the A.F.L. leaders were hostile to sympathy strikes on principle, opposed to the industrial unionism of the A. R.U., and allied with the railroad brotherhoods that opposed the strike. They believed that a head-on struggle between labor and capital should be avoided at all costs. Instead of appealing for a general strike, they recommended $1,000 be given for Debs' legal defense and went home.58 When the Chicago Building Trades Council called off its sympathetic strike in the wake of this decision, the Chicago Tribune declared jubilantly:

It is Dealt Two Mortal Blows by Labor
Federation Hits First
Trades Council Follows with a Crusher59

It is little wonder that the United States Strike Commission of 1894 declared that trade unions "have promoted conciliation, arbitration, conservatism, and responsibility in labor contentions and agreements."60

How close at hand was a general strike? A number of locals in Chicago had already struck, and the Trades and Labor Assembly had come out for the idea. The Briggs House Conference statement said, "While we may not have the power to order a strike of the working people of our country, we are fully aware that a recommendation from this conference to them to lay down their tools of labor would largely influence the members of our affiliated organizations."61 This would seem to be borne out by Gompers' testimony that "from St. Louis and various places throughout Missouri, Ohio, and Colorado, I was in receipt of telegrams that they had resolved to await the word that the A.F.L. conference would give as to determining their action."62 Instead of calling for such support, however, the Briggs House statement urged "that all connected with the A.F.L. now out on sympathetic strike should return to work, and those who contemplate going out on sympathetic strike are advised to remain at their usual vocations."63 Gompers agreed that had the executive board of the A.F.L. called a strike even in its advisory capacity, its members would have struck,64 and that the strike thereupon "would have spread to a greater or lesser extent over the whole country."65 Many coal miners were still on strike, and more workers joined strikes in 1894 than any previous year. Given the stormy atmosphere of the time, Gompers' judgment seems sound.

The workers at Pullman held out to the end. On July 6th, the militia was sent in, replacing the strikers' guards at the works - but the strike remained firm. Once the railroad strike was broken, however, all hope was lost, and Pullman began to rehire his workers on his own terms, the militia standing by.

The real issue of the strike of course had not been simply the wages of the workers at Pullman. George Pullman defined the issue as "the principle that a man should have the right to manage his own property."66 The secret minutes of the General Managers' Association suggested that the question was whether the railroads would "determine for themselves" what cars they would or would not handle on their lines.67 Or, as Vice-President George Howard of the A.R.U. put it, "I always contended that the men had a right to handle or not handle anything they pleased," whereas the company announced publicly that "they would haul such cars as they chose regardless of what the delegates to the A.R.U. convention might say, or what their own employees might say."68 The real issue was the issue of power; it was understood that this in turn would determine the other questions of wages, working conditions, and the like.

The Pullman strike showed that merely by making a non-violent strike against an industry - if the strike seriously challenged corporate power - workers would bring down upon themselves the entire organized force of society, including military force. As Debs put it,

We have only got a number, and a limited number, of poorly paid men in our organization, and when their income ceases they are starving. We have no power of the Government behind us. We have no recognized influence in society on our side. . . . On the other side the corporations are in perfect alliance; they have all of the things that money can command, and that means a subsidized press, that they are able to control the newspapers, and means a false or vitiated public opinion. The clergy almost steadily united in thundering their denunciations; then the courts, then the State militia, then the Federal troops; everything and all things on the side of the corporations.69

The lesson of the strike, as one railroad worker put it, was to

"demonstrate to the laboring men that they must get together; that no single organization can win. . . they have seen the united press against them; they have seen the united clergy against them; they have seen the entire judiciary against them; they have seen the entire office holders of this country against them - the United States Government against them, and all the old-time [labor] organizations . . ."70

The full mobilization of state power against the strikers created problems with which even the militant leadership of the American Railway Union was unable to deal. Although the A.R.U's structure allowed great initiative from below, local groups still looked to the national officers for leadership and direction. Consequently, when the leaders were jailed and their office broken up, the locals were unable to continue on their own. Debs gave a vivid picture of just how vulnerable the strike was to the loss of central leadership:

Our men were in a position that never would have been shaken under any circumstances if we had been permitted to remain among them. . . . but once we were taken from the scene of action and restrained from sending telegrams or issuing the orders necessary, or answering questions; when the minions of the corporations would be put to work at such a place, for instance, as Nickerson, Kansas, where they would go and say to the men that the men at Newton had gone back to work, and Nickerson would wire me to ask if that were true; no answer would come to the message because I was under arrest, and we were all under arrest. The headquarters were demoralized and abandoned, and we could not answer any messages. The men went back to work, and the ranks were broken up by the federal courts of the United States."71

Even had the A.R.U. officers remained at liberty, however, they would not have been able to win the strike, against a state power resolved to crush it, without a complete change of approach.

The union was committed to "legal" and "orderly" tactics, even while it was being destroyed by the forces of "law and order." Initially, it made perfect sense for the workers to follow Debs' policy and "do everything in their power to maintain order, because. . . if there was perfect order there would be no pretext upon which they could call out the soldiers or appeal for the intervention of the court, and we would win without a question of a doubt."72 Yet at the point where the courts and army intervened despite the legal and non-violent policy of the strikers, the A.R.U. was unable to change its approach. It was therefore doomed to failure, for as Debs later pointed out, even "if all the railroad men in the country were organized within one brotherhood and acted together it would be impossible for them to succeed."73

When the troops came in, making legal success impossible, workers throughout the country responded with mass direct action. But for the A.R.U. to adopt such a policy would have meant a challenge to the entire social order - a step from which it recoiled. Thus we are presented with the spectacle of Eugene Victor Debs, perhaps the greatest example of a courageous, radical, and uncorruptable trade union official in American history, trying to end the strike in order to prevent it from becoming an insurrection. For, as Debs testified-

We became satisfied that things were assuming too serious a phase, and that a point had been reached when, in the interest of peace and to prevent riot and trouble we must declare the strike off . . . It was in the crisis when everything was at stake, where possibly it might have eventuated in a revolution.74

However much of a defeat the Pullman strike may have been in terms of its immediate objectives, its real significance, as Debs saw, was the unprecedented sense of solidarity it reflected, something not embodied in any particular organization, but in what he called "the spirit of organization." As Debs testified, after the strike:

They might as well try to stop Niagara with a feather as to crush the spirit of organization in this country. . . . It may not come up in the form of the American Railway Union, but this spirit of resistance to wrong is there, it is growing stronger constantly, and it finds its outlet in labor disturbances, in strikes of various kinds. Even if the men know in advance that they are going to meet with defeat they are so impressed with a sense of wrong under which they are suffering that they strike and take the penalty.75

Excerpted from Brecher's excellent book, Strike! Lightly edited by libcom in order to make sense as a stand-alone text.

  • 1 W.H. Carwardine, The Pullman Strike (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1894), p. 69, cited in Yellin, p. 104.
  • 2 Chicago Times, June 13, 1894, p. 2, cited in Almont Lindsey, The Pullman Strike (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books Ed., 1964). p. 127..
  • 3 U.S. Strike Commission Report, Senate Exec. Doc. No.7 53d Cong., 3d Sess. (Wash.: GPO, 1895), submitted to Pres. Cleveland on Nov. 14, 1894, p.62.
  • 4Gerald G. Eggert, Railroad Labor Disputes, The Beginnings of Federal Strike Policy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967), p. 147.
  • 5 Ray Ginger, The Vending Cross, A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1949p, p. 97.
  • 6 Ibid. Pp. 97-8.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 107.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 101.
  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 Chicago Times, May 13, 1894, p. 20, cited in Lindsey, p. 126.
  • 11 Ginger, pp. 117-8.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 118.
  • 13 U.S. Strike Commission Report, p. 135.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 72.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 59.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 96.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 106.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 110.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 112.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Lindsey, pp. 134-5.
  • 22 New York Times, June 29, 1894, cited in Lindsey, p. 203.
  • 23 Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1894.
  • 24 U.S. Strike Commission Report, p. 140.
  • 25 Ibid.. p. 28; Lindsey, p. 240.
  • 26 Eugene Debs, in Public Opinion, July 5, 1894, cited in Yellin, pp. 115-6.
  • 27 Yellin, p. 118.
  • 28 Eugene V. Debs, Writings and Speeches of Eugene Victor Debs, (N.Y.: Hermitage Press, 1948), p. 45.
  • 29 John Egan, in Inter Ocean, July 3, 1894, p. 3, cited in Lindsey, p. 144.
  • 30 Lindsey, p. 142.
  • 31 John Egan, in Inter Ocpan, . July 1894, p. 3, cited in Lindsey, p. 144.
  • 32 Olney to E. Walker, June 30, 1894, Appendix to the. . . Report of the Attorney General. . . 1896, p. 60, cited in Lindsey, p. 150.
  • 33 Grover Cleveland, The Government in the Chicago Strike of 1894 (Princeton' Princeton University Press, 1913), p. 232.
  • 34 Lindsay, p. 162.
  • 35 John Swinton, Striking for Life (N.Y.: Western W. Wilson, 1894), p. 92.
  • 36 Chicago Times, July 3, 1894, v. 1, cited in Lindsey, p. 164.
  • 37 Arnold to Olney, July 3, 1894, in Chicago Strike Correspondénce, p. 66, cited in Eggert, pp. 170-1.
  • 38 Olney, quoted in Eggert, p. 172.
  • 39 Strike Commission Report, p. 39.
  • 40 New York Times, July 5, 1894, cited in Lindsey, p. 175.
  • 41 Eggert, p. 171.
  • 42 U.S. Strike Commission Report, p. 214-5.
  • 43 New York Times, Aug. 16, 1902, cited in Yellin, p. 122.
  • 44 Waite, in Inter Ocean, July 7, 1894, cited in Lindsey, p. 168.
  • 45 Lindsey, p. 250.
  • 46 Ibid.
  • 47 Ibid., p. 260.
  • 48 Eggert, p. 18.
  • 49 Hugh D. Graham and Ted R. Gurr, The History of Violence in America (N.Y.:Bantam Books, 1969), p. 298.
  • 50 Annual Report of the Secretary of War for the Year 1894, Vol. I (Wash.: GPO, 1894), p. 109, cited in Lindsey, p. 214.
  • 51 Bradstreet's, July 28,1894, p. 467, cited in Yellin, p. 130.
  • 52 Strike Commission Report, p. xlii.
  • 53 Ginger, p. 122.
  • 54 Terre Haute Evening Gadzette, July 19,1894, cited in Yellin, p.123.
  • 55 St.John, testimony in U.S. Strike Commission Report, p.117.
  • 56 Ginger, p. 143.
  • 57 New York Times, July 12, 1894, cited in Lindsey, p. 225.
  • 58 "Proceedings of Briggs Conference," p. 133, cited in Lindsey, p. 228.
  • 59 Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1894, cited in Ginger, p. 150.
  • 60 U.S. Strike Commission Report, p. xxviii.
  • 61 "Proceedings of Briggs Conference," p.
  • 62 U. S. Strike Commission Report, p. 190.
  • 63 Ibid., p. 192.
  • 64 Ibid., p. 194.
  • 65 Ibid., p. 199.
  • 66 Ibid., p. 556.
  • 67 General Managers Association, Minutes of Meetings (Chicago, 1894), p. 94, cited in Eggert, p. 156.
  • 68 U.S. Strike Commission Report, pp. 9, 11.
  • 69 Ibid., p. 169.
  • 70 Ibid., p. 76.
  • 71 Ibid., p. 146.
  • 72 Ibid., p. 50.
  • 73 Ibid., p. 161.
  • 74 Ibid., pp. 145-6.
  • 75 Ibid., p. 163.