The Pullman Strike of 1894

The Pullman strike of 1894 was especially important to Americans' perceptions of "the labor problem" of the time. The Pullman strike brought Eugene Debs national attention, and it led directly to his conversion to socialism. The events of the strike led other Americans to begin a quest for achieving more harmonious relations between capital and labor while protecting the public interest.

The Pullman Company, owned by George Pullman, manufactured railroad cars, and by 1894 it operated "first class" sleeping cars on almost every one of the nation's major railroads. The name Pullman was a household word. The company's manufacturing plants were in a company-owned town on the outskirts of Chicago. Pullman publicized his company town as a model communityfilled with contented, well-paid workers. The Pullman workers, however, disagreed, especially after the onset of the economic depression that began in 1893. During that depression, Pullman sought to preserve profits by lowering labor costs. When the firm slashed its work force from 5,500 to 3,300 and cut wages by an average of 25 percent, the Pullman workers struck. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, was trying to organize rail workers all across the country. The Pullman workers joined the ARU, and Debs became the leader of the Pullman strike.

The ARU enjoyed wide influence among the workers who operated trains. To bring pressure on Pullman, the union asked trainmen to refuse to run trains on which Pullman sleeping cars wereattached. The union told the railroads that their trains could operate without the Pullman cars, but the railroads insisted that they had contracts with the Pullman Company requiring them to haul the sleeping cars. The result was an impasse, with railroad workers in and around Chicago refusing to operate passenger trains. The conflict was deep and bitter, and it seriously disrupted American railroad service.

The strike ended with the intervention of the United States Army. The passenger trains also hauled mail cars, and although the workers promised to operate mail trains so long as Pullman cars were not attached, the railroads refused. Pullman and the carriers informed federal officials that violence was occurring and that the mail was not going through. Attorney General Richard Olney, who disliked unions, heard their claims of violence (but not the assurances of local authorities that there was no uncontrolled violence) and arranged to send federal troops to insure the delivery of the mail and to suppress the strike. The union leader, Debs, was jailed for not obeying an injunction that a judge had issued against the strikers."