In the late 1800's, labor unions rose to prominence due to harsh and unfair working conditions and low wages for factory workers and others. Unions provided a way for a large group of people to approach the employers by means of a representative who could bargain for better pay or shorter hours for all the employees.
Beginning in 1929, a young businessman named George Pullman moved from New York City to Chicago and gained success as a building contractor. He provided equipment for the city to raise its downtown buildings ten feet higher for new sewer pipes to be laid.
In 1867, he began to design and build new luxury railroad cars which included restaurant cars, sleeping cars, and comfortable seats. These became known as Pullman cars. By 1893, Pullman's company was worth 62 million dollars.
Between 1880 and 1884, Pullman set about to build a whole town for his railroad workers south of Chicago. The Village of Pullman had a library, church, parks, office buildings, landscaped streets, sewer systems and well-built houses. The houses had indoor plumbing and gas heat. Pullman intended that he would make a profit on this town as on all his other ventures. He rented the houses to the employees. He also charged them fees for food, water, and gas. He made a ten percent profit on the business.
A serious financial crisis occurred in 1893. Companies did not have enough money to retain all their employees. Pullman laid off one-third of his workers and reduced hours for twenty-five percent of the remaining workers. Pullman still needed to give his investors return on their money, so he did not reduce rents in the Village of Pullman. He deducted all rent and expenses directly from the paychecks of the employees. Many had barely any money left after these deductions.
Many workers joined the American Railway Union. In 1894, the union asked its members in the Chicago area to go on a strike, along with those in other areas where Pullman cars operated. A strike is a situation when workers refuse to report to work until the employers make specific changes to pay levels or workday hours. George Pullman refused to make changes. Eventually, whole rail lines were shut down. 50,000 railroad workers had left their jobs by June 1894.
The General Managers Association, which was made up of railroad administrators, asked the governor of Illinois to send in troops to break up the strikes. Striking workers usually stand outside plants to block any employees who want to keep working from entering the facilities. The governor refused because he sided with the workers. The Attorney General of the United States declared the strike unconstitutional, but the strikers refused to leave.
President Grover Cleveland sent two thousand soldiers to Chicago to manage the situation. Some workers were killed or wounded. Many of the leaders of the strike were put into prison. However, the public was tired of the problem. The workers went back to their jobs in August 1984.
The President appointed a commission to investigate the Pullman strike. Even so, George Pullman felt he did not act wrongly in trying to break up the strike. He died in 1897. The former village of Pullman was declared a national landmark district in 1971. The Pullman Strike had a great effect on the history of labor in the United States. The use of federal troops and injunctions against strikes continued until the 1930's. Management and workers continued to be at odds for many years after that.
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