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Labor History This Month

Important Dates in Labor History

May 1, 1886

8-hour day demonstration in Chicago begins tradition of May day as labor holiday.


May 5, 1961

Freedom Riders begin tour of Deep South to test compliance with federal law on discrimination.

May 9, 1934

Longshoremen-led strike for union hiring hall and recognition leads to general strike on the West Coast.

May 10, 1894

Pullman Railway car employees strike to protest wage cuts. Nationwide rail walkout broken by federal troops and court injunctions.

May 20, 1926

Railway Labor Act passed in aftermath of strikes and federal seizure of the railroads. First national collective bargaining in US.

May 22, 1895

American Railway Union leader Eugene Victor Debs jailed for his role in Pullman railroad strike.


May 30, 1937

10 strikers murdered in Memorial Day massacre at Republic Steel in Chicago.


This Month In Labor History

Pullman, 1894


by William Adelman


May marks the anniversary of the Pullman Strike of 1894. It was an event that shocked the nation and resulted in a Senate investigation.

In 1880, George Pullman commissioned architect Solon Beman to begin construction of a so-called "model town" for the production of his sleeping cars and for the housing of his workers A buffer zone was provided between the town and Chicago to separate workers from the evil influence of the city. Those hired were carefully screened to assure industrious, non-drinking, American-born workers, who were not union members.

The town was beautiful, but there was nothing American about it. It was more like a feudal state. There was no democracy in the community or on the job. 

Why the Workers Went on Strike

Although there were walkouts and a constantly changing work force from the beginning, serious labor problems developed in 1893 when Pullman reduced wages from 25-54 percent without any reduction in the rents workers paid or in what they were charged for water and gas by the company.

When a committee of workers asked to talk over their grievances with management, several members of the committee were fired. On June 11, 1894 pro-union workers went on strike and the non-striking workers were locked out by the company. 

Supporters and Opponents of the Strike

A young Methodist minister, the Rev. William Carwardine, could no longer stand to see members of his Pullman congregation starving. He and Jennie Curtis, a teenage Pullman seamstress, went to the convention of the American Railway Union (ARU) and on June 12, 1894 they appealed for help. Against even the wishes of the ARU President, Eugene V. Debs, they convinced the delegates to back the Pullman workers against the powerful Pullman Palace Car Company. The ARU agreed to refuse to move any train carrying a Pullman car.

The General Managers' Association (GMA), made up of 24 railroads centering or terminating in Chicago, saw this as a battle to the death between labor and management. They came to Pullman's aid by placing Pullman cars on freight and mail trains, thereby creating a national emergency in order to force federal intervention.

The entire nation took sides in the dispute with supporters of the union wearing white ribbons on their labels, and those against wearing small American flags. Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, and Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois would come take the side of the workers. 

The Strike Is Broken

        The Sherman Anti-Trust Law, passed to control monopolies like Standard Oil, was used against Debs and the ARU. An injunction was issued, and 14,000 federal troops and special deputies were sent to Chicago by the 4th of July!

Debs was arrested and thrown into the Cook County Jail. A trial followed and the jury was about to find Debs not guilty, when one of the jurors became ill. The anti-union judge declared a mistrial, and sentenced Debs to prison for six months based on violation of the injunction. When Chicago workers threatened to tear down the Cook County Jail and free Debs, he was sent instead to McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois, a conservative farm area. 

When Debs was released, hundreds of labor leaders went to Woodstock and brought him back to Chicago in a special train. He was greeted at the Northwestern Station by half a million people. They wrapped him in an American flag and workers carried Debs on their shoulders to the lakefront where he gave his famous "Liberty Speech." He told the audience that it was not enough to just belong to a union; workers had to get involved politically and change unfair laws. 

Results of the Strike

George Pullman never admitted his mistake even though leading businessmen like, Marcus Hanna were disgusted with him for not meeting with his workers. Pullman died three years after the strike and was buried under tons of steel and concrete in fear that his grave would be desecrated.

After the strike, the U.S. Strike Commission held hearing and recommendations were made for some type of federal arbitration to be established through a labor board. This would not become a reality for 41 years, until the passage in 1935 of the National Labor Relations Act.  

Pullman Today

Today the 750 homes in Pullman are privately owned. The Florence Hotel and the remaining factory buildings were purchased several years ago by the State of Illinois. Much of the area has received landmark status either from the federal government or the city of Chicago. Tragically, a fire in 1998 damaged the factory site and destroyed a majority of the Clock Tower structure. Perhaps in the future the Federal government will develop the site as a 'National Labor Park' similar to the one created at Lowell, Massachusetts.

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