Roaming the sleepy streets of Pullman on Chicago’s Southeast Side, it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was the chaotic center of worker struggle in the United States.
Many of the handsome red brick homes in the center of Pullman—once a bustling company town and now a Chicago neighborhood—are occupied and well-maintained, but the shuttered luxury hotel hasn’t hosted a guest in decades, the skeletal factory buildings are locked behind a chain-link fence, and the hands of the derelict clocktower that helped govern the working lives of thousands of men and women remain frozen in time.
But in the spring of 1894, a company-wide walkout at the site’s factories snowballed into a two-month long nationwide “sympathy strike” that, at its peak, galvanized as many as 250,000 men and women in 27 states and territories. A sympathy strike, or solidarity action, is when workers strike in support of others involved in a labor dispute in a different company, but often in the same or a related industry.
Later known as the Pullman Strike, the struggle became the largest-ever organized work stoppage and the most significant demonstration of union strength in American history, up until the Great Steel Strike of 1919.
In 2019, 125 years after the monumental strike at Pullman, the area’s physical infrastructure continues to crumble. But the revitalization of sympathy strikes and mass labor organizing all across the country in recent years—from teacher walkouts to the work stoppage threat by flight attendants that helped end the government shutdown—suggests that the legacy of the Great Pullman Strike remains very much alive today.
In a fiery speech to a group of labor leaders and visitors at the 125th-anniversary celebration of the Great Pullman Strike on May 11, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson said, “Look at how unions banded together during the Pullman Strike. The president of the Chicago Federation of Labor said at the time. ‘We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman Company, we’re aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.’
“This is again a time when people have a growing consciousness of the ruling class and those with an insatiable need for more money, power and control,” she continued. “Working people are just now understanding the power they have when they stand together and claim our share of the profits we create.”
The Great Pullman Strike was likely a shock to outside observers who had visited what appeared to them to be a capitalist utopia.
“Here, indeed, seems to be the coming paradise of labor,” read one an article in an 1882 edition of The Railway Age Monthly. The London Times declared Pullman “the most perfect town in the world.”
George Pullman, the town’s mastermind, certainly saw it that way.
The industrialist made his fortune in the mid-19th century by cornering the market on upscale train cars for the wealthy at a time when the railroad industry held a stranglehold over the economy.
In 1877, Pullman built a luxurious mansion on swanky Prairie Avenue amidst Chicago’s elite, like department store magnate Marshall Field. Three years later, Pullman purchased 4,000 acres of swamp-covered land near Lake Calumet and invested an estimated $5 million to build a series of factories, along with hundreds of houses to be rented to up to 10,000 workers. He also approved the construction of school buildings, parks, a library, a theater and the Midwest’s first indoor shopping mall.
Named after its founder, Pullman was to be a company town: a planned community in which an individual corporation owns all of the businesses and housing, in the name of centralizing production.
Hundreds of company towns have existed in the U.S. in some form or another, from the poorly constructed shanty towns of the mining or lumber industries to Milton S. Hershey’s grandiose amusement park-like model town built for his chocolate factory workers in Pennsylvania.
Like Hershey, Pullman intended his village to serve as a shining alternative to the squalor of urban industrial slums. The streets were paved and outfitted with modern sewers, every house had indoor plumbing and thousands of trees and flowers were planted.
“I want the people who work at Pullman to have the advantages of seeing the best,” Pullman said. “I want no cheap, crude, inartistic work in any department. I have faith in the educational and refining influences of beauty and beautiful and harmonious surroundings, and hesitate at no reasonable expenditure to secure them.”
In other words, Pullman believed he could to increase his profits while also responding to the poor conditions of tenement housing that accompanied rapid industrialization. Protecting his workers from alcohol, disease and vice was good for them—and him.
“He genuinely had a vision for the future in which workers wouldn’t have to live in the slums of Chicago and they’d have this beautiful model town,” said Jack Kelly, the author of the recent book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America. “His employees would have a better life and in turn would be more productive workers because they’d be sober, educated, and have shorter commutes. He saw it as a win-win.”
Many journalists agreed, especially after seeing it in person during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “Future generations will bless his memory,” predicted the Chicago Times. Progressives also noted that African Americans worked as porters on the company’s “Palace Cars,” and Pullman became the largest employer of freed slaves in the country.
But while the press may have extolled Pullman’s virtues, critics claim that the amenities and bucolic surroundings of his company town served as window dressing for his paternalism and greed.
“The church he built was very telling,” noted Kelly. “He wanted to charge so much rent for it that no one could afford it and it just sat there empty, for decoration.”
No African American was allowed to live in the boundaries of Pullman, and black workers were paid lower wages than whites. Pullman also forced residents to follow a set of draconian rules. For instance, he reportedly required tenants to place decorative flowers in their windowsills and to wipe their feet on doormats before they entered their own apartments. Taverns—an important feature of working-class life at the time—were outlawed, and the only bar in town (located in the hotel named for Pullman’s daughter Florence) was strictly for visitors.
No one could vote to change these rules because no democratic town government was put in place.
To prevent anyone from unionizing the company, according to Kelly, company spies were planted across the town to report on any attempts to organize.
Not every outsider was taken in by Pullman’s vision. Writing for Harper’s in 1885, economist Richard Ely called Pullman’s system “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as shall please the authorities.”
“It went back to that idea that the Lord of the Manor knows best,” said Kelly. “And the problem is that Pullman’s strict rules built all sorts of resentments among the workers that only got worse over time.”
The Pullman Strike
These resentments were exacerbated by an economic crisis in 1893 that plunged the nation into a depression. Pullman responded to the company’s falling revenue by cutting his workers’ wages five times—including a single 30 percent cut—without reducing rents, while continuing to pay stockholders the same pre-depression dividends. By April of 1894, some families living in Pullman’s town were on the brink of starvation.
“There were guys who almost fainted on the job because they hadn’t eaten in days because they couldn’t afford it,” said Kelly. “One guy got a paycheck of two cents—he didn’t even cash it—he just had it framed. That really showed the contempt that Pullman had for working people.”
The workers had tried to negotiate. Forming a union was against the law, but some of them organized a 46-member grievance committee in secret in a nearby neighborhood outside of Pullman. The committee’s leaders met twice with company officials—including Pullman himself during the second meeting—to demand that he reverse the wage cuts and reduce the rents.
The company refused. Pullman argued that “arbitration always implies acquiescence in the decision of the arbitrator, whether favorable or adverse.” Six days later, on May 12, 1894, thousands of workers walked off the job. The two-month-long strike had begun. “We struck at Pullman,” the workers later testified, “because we were without hope.”
The strike may have been easily defeated or gone relatively unnoticed outside of Chicago if not for the American Railway Union (ARU), the powerful cross-trade railroad labor group founded the previous year and led by Eugene Debs. “Before you had these brotherhoods, these craft unions that bickered, competed and undercut each other,” said Kelly. “The ARU was different.”
In April 1894, just one month prior to the Pullman workers’ unrest, the ARU successfully led Great Northern Railroad workers through a different dispute. Voluntary arbitration had resolved the strike, and three-fourths of the Great Northern Railroad’s wage cut had been restored. In the following weeks, 35 percent of Pullman’s workers joined the ARU hoping that the new union could perhaps do the same for them.
“Pullman, both the man and the town, is an ulcer on the body politic,” the Pullman workers told the ARU in a statement at the union’s first-ever national convention in Chicago in June 1894. “He owns the houses, the schoolhouses and churches of God in the town he gave his once humble name. The revenue he derives from these, the wages he pays out with one hand—the Pullman Palace Car Company, he takes back with the other—the Pullman Land Association. … 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.”
Debs’ response was ruthless in its criticism of George Pullman, calling him “the plutocrat with a soul so small that a million of them could dance on the little end of a hornet’s stinger.” He called for the ARU to support Pullman workers with a sympathy strike because it was not just a single fight but part of a greater movement for workers’ universal rights to higher wages, safer working conditions and other basic protections.
“The forces of labor must unite. The salvation of labor demands it,” Debs said at the convention on June 12. “The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become imperceptible, and then labor’s hosts, marshaled under one conquering banner, shall march together, vote together, and fight together until workingmen shall receive and enjoy all their fruits of their toil.”
It was a watershed moment for sympathy strikes. “Eugene Debs knew we all needed to stick together,” said Joe Burns, the author of the book Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America, “It was the hope and future of labor unions—class wide solidarity.”
On June 22, 1894, the delegates of the ARU agreed to boycott Pullman cars until the strike was settled. Despite threats from railroad companies that any worker who refused to handle Pullman cars would be fired, the sympathy strike officially began on June 26.
Within a matter of days, railroads west of Detroit were frozen for more than a month as workers either refused to touch Pullman’s cars or unhitched them from trains. Suddenly passengers were stranded, the price of food ballooned, power plants and factories ran out of resources and mines and lumber mills were forced to close.
The reverberations of the sympathy strike were felt all over the country—especially after the strike stopped the delivery of U.S. mail. For Debs, an outright struggle between the upper and lower classes appeared imminent as the strike, “has developed into a contest between the producing classes and the money power of this country.”
U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, also a railroad lawyer and friend of Pullman’s, declared that America had reached “the ragged edge of anarchy.” Olney asked the federal courts to ban the ARU boycotts, and on July 2 he received an injunction to end the strike. President Grover Cleveland deployed federal troops from Fort Sheridan north of Chicago to Pullman to enforce the court’s ruling.
On July 4, a thousand troops arrived and set up camp, joining thousands of armed police and guardsmen to break the strike while masses of unarmed strikers crowded the railroad yards. Over the next three days, riots broke out and hundreds of railcars were burned. Violence erupted after a railroad agent shot one of the boycotters and 26 civilians were killed in the weeks-long mayhem that followed.
The soldiers and railroad workers got the trains moving again and in the following weeks, Debs and other agitators were jailed for “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the rebellion. The strike was officially broken on August 2.
Pullman won the battle, but the industrial kingdom he built would soon fall. His reputation was ruined among government officials, his fellow tycoons and those like Jane Addams—the famous activist and social justice advocate who had tried to help arbitrate the strike.
“She considered Pullman to be like a King Lear figure,” said Kelly.
President Cleveland ordered a commission to discover the causes of the strike, and the final report blamed the boss. “The aesthetic features are admired by visitors, but have little money value to employees, especially when they lack bread,” the report stated.
In 1898, the Illinois State Supreme Court ordered that Pullman either divest itself of the company or the residential property. He chose his company. In 1889, Pullman was annexed by the city of Chicago.
By the time George Pullman died in 1897, he was so despised that his family buried him under thick layers of reinforced concrete so that no one could descrecrate his grave. “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the son of a bitch wasn’t going to get up and come back,” noted journalist Ambrose Bierce at the time.
Meanwhile, Debs, who would later found the Socialist Party, became a populist hero while in jail. Six months after being locked away, he re-emerged in Chicago triumphant—with 100,000 supporters cheering him on. By 1912, when a million Americans voted for Debs as president, both the Republicans and Democrats began to embrace progressive reforms advocated by Debs and other socialists: anti-trust and child labor laws, women’s suffrage, minimum wages and the eight-hour work day.
The Return of Solidarity
One-hundred and twenty five years after Debs’ speech to the ARU, Sara Nelson sounded ready to continue where the great socialist labor leader left off.
Nelson told the crowd gathered in the Pullman visitor’s center about her call for a general strike in January, during the Trump administration’s month-long government shutdown over funding for his border wall. After some air traffic controllers in key facilities called in sick, Nelson warned that flight attendants were “mobilizing immediately” to strike. Hours later, Trump reached a deal to reopen the government.
“Our entire country’s economy was on the line, our safety and security were on the line. If we could just communicate that to the public, and say what we were willing to do—we could end this [shutdown],” said Nelson. “The wonderful news is that no one knew what a general strike was, but it scared the piss out of them. It worked.”
Over the last two years, mass work stoppages have spread across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25,000 workers were involved in major work stoppage in 2017, but that numbered skyrocketed to 485,000 in 2018. These actions range from the wildcat strikes of hundreds of thousands of teachers and education workers in four Republican-dominated states to tens of thousands of hospital workers striking in 2018. The first half of 2019 has also seen major work stoppages, including the recent strike of 31,000 employees of the grocery chain Stop & Shop across three northeastern states—one of the largest private sector strikes in years.
These large-scale strikes helped bring victories for both workers and the labor movement as a whole. But Nelson believes that general and sympathy strikes are the logical next step in securing more significant wins.
Today, most solidarity strikes are illegal, says Burns, due to legislation ranging from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. That’s part of the reason why they’ve fallen out of fashion since the days of the Great Pullman Strike.
But the flight attendant union’s successful threat of a walkout—as well as the wildcat teachers’ strikes—are proof that the law can be beaten by mass solidarity, says Burns. “Labor law is set up for workers to lose and it’s going to change through the courts,” he said. “It will only change with workers coming together and fighting for the right to strike and free speech.”
For Nelson, sympathy strikes don’t have to represent the labor movement’s antiquated past. Today’s new Gilded Age is populated by a new generation of robber barons, and the Great Pullman Strike could help illuminate a path forward for American workers.
In what could be a hint of what’s to come, the United Mine Workers of America threatened a sympathy strike in support of West Virginia teachers in early June. The teachers are fighting state Republicans’ proposed retaliation to their 2018 walkout by creating new penalties for teachers who go on strike. Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, said, “Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”
A large-scale general strike may not happen tomorrow, but Nelson believes it may not be as far off as we think.
“We’re not quite there yet, but when I called for a general strike during the government shutdown, I absolutely expected people to say, ‘You’re crazy lady, you can’t do that!’ Instead what I got was, “What are we waiting for? Yeah, let’s go!’”
This article first appeared in In These Times