Low wages and the laying off of workers led to one of the greatest work strikes in American history. Workers were extremely infuriated by the rigid conditions from American Industrialist, George M. Pullman during the late 1800’s. The Pullman strike created justified controversy of U.S labor laws because of poor living conditions, cutting of low wages, and long work days which lead to disrupted rail traffic in 1894. However, despite the worker’s battle being unsuccessful, labor laws were later altered through progressive reforms and working conditions were made much more safer and fairer.
George M. Pullman was born in Boston New York into an underprivileged family who sometimes struggled financially. However, he managed to do some building projects and ended up moving to Chicago and becoming part of a three man partnership working with the sewer system. Pullman’s accomplishments didn’t end when he became the inventor of the sleeping car. The sleeping car is a rail car that contains beds that are used for when passengers are traveling to farther locations and need to sleep the night and day.
Pullman made these cars more pleasant and convenient for passengers riding. Jimmy Stamp writes, “The Pioneer, as he dubbed his second design, was wider and taller than anything that came before and used trucks with rubberized springs to reduce bouncing and shaking.” Overall, George Pullman gained his wealth by creating a fancier and more comfortable railroad car that people were more interested in, than the simple and dull rail cars. George Pullman’s fame and success grew even more when past president, Abraham Lincoln, was transported to his burial spot in one of Pullman’s cars after his death. George Pullman later went on to devise a small town that got the famous name of the company town. He innovated a town just for his workers.
Further research stated, “Pullman owned the buildings and chose the town’s leaders. He also set the rates for rent and utility payments.” George Pullman was almost like the town’s mayor. He possessed numerous buildings and provinces in the town. Unfortunately, George Pullman’s riches and luxury did not last very long. Due to the disastrous works of the Cordage and Railroad companies, there was an enormous drop in the stock market prices which later led to the Panic of 1893. During this time of dismay, people became unemployed and men were no longer bringing home enough money to feed their families.
“Unemployment rates soared to twenty to twenty-five percent in the United States during the Panic of 1893. Homelessness skyrocketed, as workers were laid off and could not pay their rent or mortgages. The unemployed also had difficulty buying food due to the lack of income.” The Panic left the country in a hole they couldn’t get out of easily.
Children were hungry and families didn’t have a place to live and grow. Because of the lack of money, people weren’t able to purchase all the luxury goods they normally would. This resulted in a decline in bought consumer goods. Pullman’s industry and his reputation went downhill from there. People weren’t at their normal financial status and because of this less rail cars were being bought. To keep his industry booming, Pullman made large adjustments.
This piece of evidence further demonstrates the adjustments, “In response, the Pullman Company fired more than a third of the workforce and instituted reduced hours and wage cuts of more than 25 percent for the remaining hourly employees. Because Pullman had promised the town’s investors a 6 percent return, there was no corresponding reduction in the rents and other charges paid by the workers. Rent was deducted directly from their paychecks, leaving many workers with no money to feed and clothe their families.” The cutting of wages was a huge step for Pullman and changed the presence of the Pullman Rail Company. Workers were not getting enough money to provide for their families. One worker in 1886 wrote, “One fine morning a number of men…
will knock at your door and tell you that they have come to whitewash your house. They will not bother you with questions…but they just go in and do it…
all charges for repairs….will be DEDUCTED FROM YOUR WAGES next pay day. You would have liked to wait another week..
.because you wanted to buy a pair of shoes for your boy. The company can’t care about that!” Workers had to save their money just to buy daily items and they were not financially stable to do so after the wage cut. Additionally, another Pullman worker stated, “We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving.” These letters were written directly to George Pullman, desperately begging for any little help. The worker’s pity did not last long when the workers became angry with their unpleasant working conditions and finally decided to do something about it.
Eugene V. Debs, past secretary of the brother was the man responsible for creating the American Railway Union which was a group that supported worker’s rights and fought against the Northern Railway Company in 1893. After this group was established, on May 11th, almost 5,000 Pullman Company workers struck by not attending to their jobs. A secondary source also states, “The boycott of Pullman cars officially went into effect on June 26. Support spread widely, as the GMA continued to firemen who refused to switch trains with Pullman cars.
On June 28, approximately 18,000 men were on strike and four or five Chicago railroads were stopped. Soon, almost all 26 railroads out of Chicago had stopped. All transcontinental lines, except the Great Northern, which carried no Pullman cars, were paralyzed.
” Workers striked non violently by just simply refusing to work the rail cars and carry out their jobs as workers of the union. After multiple negotiations and unsuccessful compromises, no alterations were made within the circumstances. A secondary source further elaborates, “In four days, nearly 50,000 men from around the country had left their jobs, despite the nation’s depression. A large portion of those who remained and ran the railway systems (as established at the Chicago convention) refused to run trains that pulled Pullman cars, no matter what the cargo the train carried (Horger). This boycott sparked talk of bringing charges against ARU for interfering with mail, business, and trade.” The strike was getting larger and the strikers were causing issues by not bringing in money for the larger companies. The leader of the strike, Eugene Debs, was finally arrested and imprisoned for causing the strikers to stop railways which resulted in violent riots and multiple deaths.
An article discusses, “For his involvement in the strike, Debs was jailed for six months in 1895 in Woodstock, Illinois. Debs spent much of his prison time reading and was deeply impressed by the works of Karl Marx. He became convinced that no single union could protect the rights of workers.” The Railway Union was stranded and left to demolish.
However, that wasn’t the end. Strikers still refrained from ending their strike which resulted in President Grover Cleveland commanding army troops to pulverize the entire strike. President Grover Cleveland writes, “The injunction of the United States court, is openly defied, and unless the mobs are dispersed by the action of the police or they are fired upon by United States troops, more serious trouble may be expected, as the mob is increasing and becoming more defiant.” President Grover Cleveland had no choice but to send in the bigger authorities and destroy the chaos. After money loss, deaths, and disrupted daily lives, the strike was finally over. The Pullman Strike is considered one of the largest, and most crucial strikes in American history.
Workers from the Pullman Company took a major risk when they made the decision to boycott and not work for George M. Pullman. Railway traffic was extensively disrupted, deaths emerged, and a great sum of money was lost. Despite these rigid circumstances, many believe the strikers did this for a good cause. The Panic of 1893 left companies to make urgent and reluctant decisions to keep their businesses booming. This unfortunately resulted in wages being cut for the workers. Families were left without enough money for food, daily products, and in some situations, even a home. Some people believe that these horrid conditions were reasonable enough to start a strike.
Although the strike resulted in defeat for the workers of the Pullman Industry, the long term effects are very significant and positive. During the progressive era, workers fought and successfully earned better laws for their jobs. Hours were shortened, and days went from being 7 days a week to five days a week. Worker’s Compensation was also established, which allowed workers to take time off and still get paid if they get ill or injured on the job. Overall, the Pullman Strike had a long and short term impact on workers rights that is still even changing today.