193 The Pullman Strike of 1894 + This Week in US History

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at the famous Pullman Strike of 1894. It began as a protest over wage cuts in the midst of a severe economic depression and quickly grew to virtually paralyze the nation’s railroad system. Eventually, President Grover Cleveland sent in the military and smashed the strike. The workers lost the strike, but they did gain a new spokesperson – the socialist Eugene Debs – who would play an influential role in American society in the decades to come.Feature Story: The Pullman Strike of 1894 On May 11, 1894, employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, located just outside Chicago, went on strike. They walkout was in response to severe wage cuts that came as the nation descended into the worst economic depression in its history. But what started out as a local strike soon blossomed into a nationwide work stoppage that paralyzed the railroad system and caused a national crisis. The Pullman Strike, one of the most famous in US history, marked a sharp turn in the fortunes and reputation of the Pullman Company’s owner. For well over a decade George Pullman had enjoyed a reputation as a benevolent industrialist. He established the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867 to manufacture luxury railroad cars. Pullman was an idealist who believed that workers and employers could work together in harmony for mutual benefit. Acting on this idea, he established the town of Pullman in 1880. It was a company town, built and owned by the Pullman corporation for its employees, who rented homes and patronized stores owned by the company. They also had to abide by many intrusive regulations imposed by the company on their personal activities. George Pullman earned widespread praise in the media for being a model capitalist who earned a vast fortune, but also provided decent wages and living conditions for his workers. So long as the Pullman Co. remained profitable, its employees considered themselves relatively fortunate. But then a devastating economic depression struck in 1893. Known as the Panic of 1893, it wiped out thousands of businesses and sent the unemployment rate to over 20 percent. The railroad industry was hit especially hard. So Pullman laid off hundreds of workers and announced to the rest a wage cut of 30 percent. On top of this devastating news, workers learned that Pullman had refused to reduce their rents, which were deducted automatically from their paychecks. Some workers soon began receiving paychecks for less than one dollar per week to cover the cost of food, heat, and clothing. And so it was that on May 11, 1894, the fed up and furious workers at Pullman voted to strike. George Pullman responded – as did most employers in that era – by refusing to negotiate with the workers. After six weeks, a man named Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union (ARU) announced that all of the union’s 125,000 members across the country, as an act of solidarity with the striking Pullman workers, would impose a boycott on the Pullman Company. They would refuse to handle any Pullman cars. Given the ubiquity of the Pullman cars, the ARU’s boycott soon slowed the nation’s railroad system to a crawl. The heads of more than two dozen railroads united to support Pullman and break the ARU by hiring thousands of strikebreakers and pressuring the governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, to send in the state militia. When the governor refused out of sympathy for the strikers and a desire to avoid violence, the railroad magnates turned to Washington, D.C. for help, asking President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops. Grover Cleveland was not the first president to face the choice of whether to send federal troops to quell a labor dispute. President Andrew Jackson dispatched troops in 1834 to end a strike by disgruntled workers working on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. More recently President Rutherford B. Hayes had sent troops to crush the great railroad strike of 1877. Despite these precedents, however, Cleveland worried about the ideological and political ramifications of military intervention. For one, the use of the army against American citizens seemed to run counter to key republican principles—had not the Founding Fathers established the United States to escape an oppressive British government? Had they not also adopted a Bill of Rights that sharply limited the use of federal power? Cleveland also had to consider the possibility that the public would condemn such use of federal power—especially if violence ensued as it did in 1877. The President spent several agonizing days in late June and early July of, 1894, consulting with advisors and mulling over his options. Despite harboring some misgivings about using federal troops to resolve a domestic dispute, President Grover Cleveland was a pro-business conservative, and his administration reflected his outlook. He authorized his Attorney General, Richard Olney, a man with extensive ties to the railroad industry, to obtain on July 2, 1894, a court injunction declaring the ARU boycott of Pullman cars a “conspiracy in restraint of trade” that unlawfully interfered with the movement of the U.S. mail. This last part about the mail was key – because delivery of the mail was a federal responsibility, the Cleveland administration claimed it had an obligation to the public to stop the boycott. When Debs and the ARU members defied the injunction, Cleveland ordered the U.S. Army to intervene on behalf of the railroads to end the boycott and get the trains moving again. The arrival of federal troops touched off extensive violence. Workers clashed with soldiers and destroyed railroad property and the soldiers responded with rifle fire that left at least 37 workers dead and scores wounded. Federal officials arrested Debs and several other ARU leaders and the boycott collapsed in mid-July. The Pullman strike lasted only a few more weeks before ending in early August in complete defeat for the workers. Public opinion had by then turned against Pullman for his obstinate refusal to negotiate with his workers. As was the case two years earlier in the Homestead Strike involving Andrew Carnegie and his steel workers, the Pullman strike exposed the notion of a benevolent capitalist as a myth. Both Pullman and Carnegie were arguably better employers than many of their capitalist counterparts, but their benevolence ran a distant second behind their primary concern: profit. When profits were threatened by unions or economic downturns, the benevolence was replaced by ruthlessness. In the aftermath, President Cleveland tried to restore his reputation with American workers by making Labor Day, a holiday established in the early 1880s, a federal holiday. He also established a federal commission to investigate the cause of the strike. Its report criticized Pullman for his handling of the strike and it argued that labor unions and government regulation were necessary as a way to curb the unrestrained power of corporations. But one year later, a very conservative and pro-business Supreme Court, ruled that the use of court injunctions to end strikes was constitutional. It would be another 40 years before legislation passed during the New Deal established legal protections for workers and labor unions. There was one positive outcome of the strike for American workers. It launched the storied career of Eugene Debs who became an iconic labor leader and advocate of socialism for the next 30 years. Debs would run for president five times as the nominee of the Socialist Party of America. And he left a lasting influence on American society.What else of note happened this week in US history? May 11, 1934 - A massive dust storm begins to sweep across the Great Plains. Drought and high-level winds carried off from the so-called “Dust Bowl” some 350 million tons of topsoil, causing tens of thousands of poor farmers known as Okies to migrate to the west coast. May 13, 1846 - After a questionable border incident between US and Mexican military forces, the US declares war on Mexico. The subsequent US victory allowed it to seize the northern half of Mexico, land that became the future states of CA, AZ, NM, and parts of NV, UT, TX and CO. May 15, 1970 – 50 years ago this week – city and state police open fire on a crowd of African American students at Jackson State in Mississippi, killing 2 and injuring 12. This incident received a fraction of the attention given killing of 4 white students at Kent State 11 days prior. May 17, 1954 - The SCOTUS issued its Brown v Board decision that declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Want to know more? Check out ITPL Episode 40 featuring my interview with historian Erin Krutko about her book, Remembering Little Rock. And what notable people were born this week in American history?   Two legends of the silver screen were born this week. May 12, 1907 Katharine Hepburn and May 16, 1905 Henry Fonda May 13, 1914 heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis May 17, 1903 baseball legend and Hall of Famer, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell. Bell retired from Negro League baseball in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke the so-called color line. Nonetheless, Cool Papa Bell was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame in 1974 The Last WordLet’s give it to an anonymous Pullman employee who said the following about the problem of living in a town completely controlled by one company:“We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell. For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com  Music for This Episode Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com) The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive) Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive) Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive) Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive) Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive) Squire Tuck, “Nuthin’ Without You” (Free Music Archive) Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive) Ketsa, “Memories Renewed” (Free Music Archive) Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive) Borrtex, “Motion” (Free Music Archive) Ondrosik, “Breakthrough” (Free Music Archive) Cuicuitte, “sultan cintr” (Free Music Archive) Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive) Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive) The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive) Production Credits Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci Website by: ERI Design Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too Social Media management: The Pony Express Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight © In The Past Lane, 2020 Recommended History Podcasts Ben Franklin’s World with Liz Covart @LizCovart The Age of Jackson Podcast @AgeofJacksonPod Backstory podcast – the history behind today’s headlines @BackstoryRadio Past Present podcast with Nicole Hemmer, Neil J. Young, and Natalia Petrzela @PastPresentPod 99 Percent Invisible with Roman Mars @99piorg Slow Burn podcast about Watergate with @leoncrawl The Memory Palace – with Nate DiMeo, story teller extraordinaire @thememorypalace The Conspirators – creepy true crime stories from the American past @Conspiratorcast The History Chicks podcast @Thehistorychix My History Can Beat Up Your Politics @myhist Professor Buzzkill podcast – Prof B takes on myths about the past @buzzkillprof Footnoting History podcast @HistoryFootnote The History Author Show podcast @HistoryDean More Perfect podcast - the history of key US Supreme Court cases @Radiolab Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell @Gladwell Radio Diaries with Joe Richman @RadioDiaries DIG history podcast @dig_history The Story Behind – the hidden histories of everyday things @StoryBehindPod Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen – specifically its American Icons series @Studio360show Uncivil podcast – fascinating takes on the legacy of the Civil War in contemporary US @uncivilshow Stuff You Missed in History Class @MissedinHistory The Whiskey Rebellion – two historians discuss topics from today’s news @WhiskeyRebelPod American History Tellers ‏@ahtellers The Way of Improvement Leads Home with historian John Fea @JohnFea1 The Bowery Boys podcast – all things NYC history @BoweryBoys Ridiculous History @RidiculousHSW The Rogue Historian podcast with historian @MKeithHarris The Road To Now podcast @Road_To_Now Retropod with @mikerosenwald © In The Past Lane 2020

2356 232