The Pullman Strike of 1894 was an organized work stoppage, originating in Chicago, by Pullman Palace Car Company employees in response to the company's announcement of a wage decrease. During the late nineteenth century, the U.S. economy struggled with severe economic downturns and banking crises that left many Americans unemployed or underpaid. This created an environment of hostility and unrest among laborers toward management, and the military was often asked to intervene. The Pullman Strike was one of the first labor movement strikes in the United States and called into question the role of the federal government in settling labor disputes.
After the American Civil War (1861–65), the U.S. economy enjoyed a period of economic prosperity with the advent of the Second Industrial Revolution (1865–73). This was a time of significant technological innovations, corporate expansion, and large-scale agriculture. Because of risky investments and unsafe banking practices, which fueled much the economy's success, the railroad industry and the banking system collapsed and caused the Panic of 1873. The United States sank into a period known as the Long Depression (1873–78), a financial recession that affected the lives of millions of Americans who lost their jobs or were subjected to severe wage cuts.
Throughout the next two decades, financial panics continued to occur, culminating in the most severe, the Panic of 1893. Also caused by a collapse in the railroad industry, the 1893 panic, which lasted from May to November of that year, precipitated a financial depression that persisted until 1897. There was a run on banks, hundreds of banks were forced to close, and many never reopened. Many businesses and manufacturers shuttered their operations because they did not have the cash to pay workers or suppliers. Several major railroads, including Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, went bankrupt. For the next half decade, the unemployment rate exceeded 10 percent, and in some cities the unemployment rate for industrial workers was between 20 and 25 percent. These events deepened the unrest and dissatisfaction of the working class and were the basis for several large labor strikes, including the Pullman Strike.
During the winter of 1893, directly following the 1893 panic, the Pullman Palace Car Company, which built and repaired railroad coaches, announced a 25 percent wage cut. Pullman was a “company town,” located south of Chicago. Most of the Pullman workers lived in company-owned housing and purchased food and supplies from company-owned stores. Even though he cut wages, George M. Pullman, the chief executive officer of the company, refused to reduce rent payments on the company housing.
The Pullman employees went on strike in early June 1894 and refused to work for Pullman until their full wages had been reinstated. The strikers requested other unions to honor their picket lines. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926), announced that its members would refuse to work on trains that included any Pullman railroad coaches. The ARU was one of the first labor organizations and the largest labor union of its time. It united employees from all areas of the railroad industry. Within a few days the strike spread to the entire Western and Southern sections of the county, and eventually more than 250,000 workers nationwide, including many ARU members, had joined. Twenty-seven states and territories were affected.
During this period a main issue that contributed to labor unrest was the perception that the government was not neutral in most disagreements between workers and management. During the Pullman strike, rather than letting labor and management settle their disagreement and allowing the dispute to take its course, many government officials in affected states called out the militia to repress the strike. The most notable exception was John Peter Altgeld, the first-term Democratic governor of Illinois, who had already shown pro-union sympathies by pardoning three union organizers accused of instigating the 1886 Haymarket Riot. Altgelt refused to dispatch the Illinois militia to break the Pullman strike. He said that public order was not threatened by the strike and that he intended to allow Pullman executives and laborers settle the dispute without government interference.
The Pullman Strike quickly turned ugly and began to negatively impact various industries. The lack of railroad employees halted mail delivery and significantly reduced freight and passenger traffic. A Chicago mob attacked stockyards and rail yards, setting hundreds of rail cars on fire. Almost 2,000 federal soldiers were dispatched to the Chicago area by order of President Grover Cleveland (in office 1885–89). When a mob attempted to block a train, National Guardsmen fired on the crowd. That day 4 people were killed and 20 were wounded. Before the strike ended, an estimated 20 people had died, and 60 were injured.
Pullman's lawyers, with the support of U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney (1835–1917), appealed to a federal court to stop the strike. They put forward two arguments. First, they claimed the strike was “in restraint of trade” and therefore violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. This act was passed by Congress in 1890 and ruled illegal “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce.” The Sherman Antitrust Act had been passed to break up monopolies (companies that controlled an entire market) rather than unions, but it was also used against unions. Second, they argued that the strike interfered in the delivery of federal mail. On July 3, 1894, the court ruled in favor of both charges and forbade Pullman employees and the ARU from continuing the strike.
The ARU, however, refused to honor the court's decision. As a result, the court sentenced Debs, along with his fellow union officers, to six months in jail. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of the ARU leaders, declaring that the order issued against the union was a legitimate device to protect interstate commerce and the mail. For 30 years after the Debs case, the court's decision was a powerful weapon in the hands of employers threatened with a strike. It was not until the Norris LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act of 1932 that labor gained some protection against strikebreaking orders issued by federal judges.
Although Pullman workers and the ARU were unable to stop the wage decrease, the strike was important for being one of the first and largest organized labor movements in the United States. Unlike smaller labor disputes, the Pullman strike became a national incident and received much attention from the public and the press. The dispute also called attention to the disparity of wealth resulting from of the Second Industrial Revolution, as well as the plight of workingmen.
SEE ALSO American Federation of Labor (AFL); American Railway Union (ARU); Company Towns; Haymarket Bombing; Industrialization; Labor Movement; Panics of the Late Nineteenth Century; Pullman Palace Car Company; Second Industrial Revolution
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