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The Great Pullman Strike
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More than 14,000 heavily armed federal troops, marshals and policemen called to duty in 27 states ranging from New York to California - 34 people shot dead, dozens seriously wounded, hundreds jailed...$80 million worth of property destroyed...the country's vital rail system badly crippled ...

It was the great Pullman strike of 1894, a virtual insurrection of working people against the corporate forces who dictated their conditions of employment, subjecting them without recourse to lives of poverty or near-poverty.

It took nearly three weeks and the might of the U.S. government itself to defeat them. But when it finally came, the defeat was among the most severe ever dealt the American labor movement.

The strike nevertheless was one of the most important of the events that ultimately led to widespread unionization and the granting of fundamental rights and protections to all U.S. workers, unionized or not.

Economically, the year of 1894 was not a good one. It was the second of what would be four consecutive years of depression. Thousands of businesses were failing, banks closing, unemployment growing steadily.

The pinch was felt even by the highly profitable Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured and leased the sleeping cars used by most of the nation's railroads.

George Pullman, the corporation's cold, arrogant principal owner, responded by laying off several thousands of its 5,800 employees and cutting pay 25 to 50 percent. Meanwhile, however, Pullman paid its usual 8 percent annual dividend to stockholders, added more than $2 million to its reserves and refused to lower the rents and fees for utilities charged employees. They lived as well as worked in the company town of Pullman the corporation had built on the southern edge of Chicago.

The rents and utility payments were deducted from workers' paychecks -- $18 a month for cramped two- to four-room accommodations in crumbling tenements plus payments for water and gas that were as much as seven times higher than what Pullman paid the city of Chicago for supplying them.

The deductions typically left workers with no more than $3 a week to live on, some even less, since they made only 4 to 16 cents an hour, The pastor of the Pullman parish church told of a man who "has a paycheck in his possession of two cents after paying ren ....He had it framed.";

But then came Eugene Debs, a former locomotive fireman who was determined to bring all railroad workers, skilled and unskilled alike, into a single powerful union.

Theirs would be an industrial union that would arm them with the key weapon of solidarity. It would not be one of those craft unions limited to masters of particular skilled trades that were favored by the American Federation of Labor.

The growth of Debs' American Railway Union was spectacular. Firemen, engineers, conductors, switchmen, section hands, maintenance men, many of them AFL craft union members, others with no other union to turn to, flocked to the ARU.

By 1894, after just a year of organizing, the union had 150,000 members, half the strength of the entire AFL. It quickly demonstrated its power by waging a strike that forced the Great Northern Railroad to rescind drastic wage cuts it had imposed.

ARU members at Pullman formed a committee to demand that their pay also be raised to its previous level. But George Pullman, determined to quash any union activity, rejected the demand and fired three members of the committee. Debs, certain that Pullman's workers were not prepared for the strike many were advocating, asked Pullman to submit the dispute to arbitration. But the corporation said no, and the strike was on.

Within a month more than a quarter-million other railroad employees had joined the strike, refusing to work on any trains that carried Pullman cars. The railroads refused to detach the Pullman cars from their trains, in hopes of drawing the ARU into a strike that would destroy the union.

Most of the two-dozen railroads that operated out of Chicago, hub of the nation's rail system, were idled. So were all transcontinental lines and a half-million workers in many industries whose jobs depended on the railroads.

After just a week, the man hired to coordinate the railroads' anti-strike activities admitted they had been "fought to a standstill." Now, he said, it was "the government's duty to take this matter in hand."

U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney swiftly agreed, and for good reason: He was a long-time railroad corporation lawyer and director of one of the struck lines. He urged President Grover Cleveland to intervene, and despite the widespread popular support for the strikers, Cleveland complied. He had a ready excuse - that the strike was interfering with interstate commerce and the delivery of mail.

Olney and his specially appointed deputy, an attorney for one of the struck railroads, quickly won a court injunction ordering strikers back to work, on grounds that they had conspired to illegally restrain trade.

The court order was issued, ironically, under the anti-trust law that originally was aimed at keeping corporations from joining together to exercise monopoly control. That, of course, was precisely what the railroads did in determining pay rates and working conditions, and in trying to destroy the strikers' union.

But that was ignored, while federal officials and the press thundered out warnings that Eugene Debs was leading a conspiracy aimed at forcibly overthrowing the government.

When he and the strikers refused to comply with the injunction, in came federal troops, and with them the strike's first serious violence.

The worst of many incidents broke out in Chicago when soldiers fired into a crowd of some 10,000 people who, spurred on by agents provocateurs from the railroads, had gathered to set fire to boxcars and otherwise violently protest the movement of trains by the Army. Twenty-five people were killed, 60 badly injured.

In other incidents, strikers and their supporters also were fired on by special deputy marshals whom government investigators later identified as "thugs, thieves and ex-convicts" armed and paid for by the railroads.

Hundreds of union officials and members were cited for violating the injunction, which prohibited anyone from even suggesting that railroad employees refuse to work. Debs and other key leaders were jailed for three to six months and government agents raided and ransacked ARU offices .

The union couldn't even hold rallies in support of the strike, and though the Pullman strikers themselves held out for a few months, the massive railroad strike launched in their behalf was over after 19 days.

With the end of the strike came the end for a long time of hopes for the development of industrial unions, in the railroad industry or anywhere else.

Debs turned to politics, becoming the Socialist Party's perennial presidential candidate. The ARU disappeared, and when the Pullman strikers returned to work they did so on Pullman's pre-strike terms - those who were fortunate enough not to be blacklisted for union activities and who would agree to have nothing further to do with any union.

Yet the Pullman strike was not in the end a failure, The strikers' extraordinary efforts kept alive the idea of mass unionization, inspiring and providing important lessons for those who finally brought the idea to realization in the 1930s. That guaranteed decent lives to millions of Americans.

Copyright Dick Meister