The Pullman Strike of 1894

President Cleveland Ordered U.S. Army to Break the Strike

Two servicemen stand beside the Pullman Building and train cars with locked arms and a bottle of liquor during the 1894 Chicago Pullman Strike

Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

The Pullman Strike of 1894 was a milestone in American labor history, as the widespread strike by railroad workers brought business to a standstill across large parts of the nation until the federal government took unprecedented action to end the strike. President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the strike, and dozens were killed in violent clashes in the streets of Chicago, where the strike was centered.

Key Takeaways: The Pullman Strike

  • Strike affected rail transportation nationwide, essentially bringing American business to a halt.
  • Workers resented not only cut in wages, but management's intrusiveness into their personal lives.
  • The federal government became involved, with federal troops being sent to open railroads.
  • Massive strike changed how Americans viewed relationship of workers, management, and the federal government.

Stakes of the Strike

The strike was an intensely bitter battle between workers and company management, as well as between two major characters, George Pullman, owner of the company making railroad passenger cars, and Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union. The significance of the Pullman Strike was enormous. At its peak, approximately a quarter-million workers were on strike. And the work stoppage affected much of the country, as effectively shutting down the railroads shut down much of American business at the time.

The strike also had a huge influence on how the federal government and the courts would handle labor issues. Issues at play during the Pullman Strike included how the public viewed the rights of workers, the role of management in the lives of workers, and the role of government in mediating labor unrest.

The Inventor of the Pullman Car

George M. Pullman was born in 1831 in upstate New York, the son of a carpenter. He learned carpentry himself and moved to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1850s. During the Civil War, he began building a new kind of railroad passenger car, which had berths for passengers to sleep. Pullman's cars became popular with the railroads, and in 1867 he formed the Pullman Palace Car Company.

Pullman's Planned Community for Workers

In the early 1880s, as his company prospered and his factories grew, George Pullman began planning a town to house his workers. The community of Pullman, Illinois, was created according to his vision on the prairie on the outskirts of Chicago. In the new town, a grid of streets surrounded the factory. There were row houses for workers, and foremen and engineers lived in larger houses. The town also had banks, a hotel, and a church. All were owned by Pullman's company.

A theater in the town put on plays, but they had to be productions that adhered to the strict moral standards set by George Pullman. The emphasis on morality was pervasive. Pullman was determined to create an environment vastly different from the rough urban neighborhoods that he viewed as a major problem in America's rapidly industrializing society.

Saloons, dance halls, and other establishments that would have been frequented by working class Americans of the time were not allowed within the city limits of Pullman. And it was widely believed that company spies kept a watchful eye on the workers during their hours off the job. The intrusiveness of management in the private lives of workers naturally became a source of resentment.

Cuts to Wages as Rents Endure

Despite growing tensions among his workers, George Pullman's vision of a paternalistic community organized around a factory fascinated the American public for a time. When Chicago hosted the Columbian Exposition, the World's Fair of 1893, international visitors flocked to see the model town created by Pullman.

Things changed dramatically with the Panic of 1893, a severe financial depression that affected the American economy. Pullman cut the wages of workers by one third, but he refused to lower the rents in the company housing.

In response, the American Railway Union, the largest American union at the time, with 150,000 members, took action. The local branches of the union called for a strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company complex on May 11, 1894. Newspaper reports said the company was surprised by the men walking out.

Pullman Strike Spreads Nationwide

Outraged by the strike at his factory, Pullman closed the plant, determined to wait out the workers. Pullman's stubborn strategy might have worked except the A.R.U. members called on the national membership to get involved. The union's national convention voted to refuse to work on any train in the country that had a Pullman car, which brought the nation's passenger rail service to a standstill

George Pullman had no power to crush a strike which had suddenly spread far and wide. The American Railway Union managed to get about 260,000 workers nationwide to join in the boycott. At times, Debs, the leader of the A.R.U., was portrayed by the press as a dangerous radical leading an insurrection against the American way of life.

Government Crushes the Strike

The U.S. attorney general, Richard Olney, became determined to crush the strike. On July 2, 1894, the federal government got an injunction in federal court which ordered an end to the strike. President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to enforce the court ruling.

When they arrived on July 4, 1894, riots broke out in Chicago, and 26 civilians were killed. A railroad yard was burned. A "New York Times" story with a quotation given by Debs on Independence Day:

"The first shot fired by the regular soldiers at the mobs here will be the signal for civil war. I believe this as firmly as I believe in the ultimate success of our course. Bloodshed will follow, and 90 percent of the people of the United States will be arrayed against the other 10 percent. And I would not care to be arrayed against the laboring people in the contest, or find myself out of the ranks of labor when the struggle ended. I do not say this as an alarmist, but calmly and thoughtfully."

On July 10, 1894, Debs was arrested. He was charged with violating the court injunction and was eventually sentenced to six months in federal prison. While in prison, Debs read the works of Karl Marx and became a committed radical, which he had not been previously.

Significance of the Strike

The use of federal troops to put down a strike was a milestone, as was the use of the federal courts to curtail union activity. In the 1890s, the threat of more violence inhibited union activity, and companies and government entities relied on the courts to suppress strikes.

As for George Pullman, the strike and the violent reaction to it forever diminished his reputation. He died of a heart attack on Oct. 18, 1897. He was buried in a Chicago cemetery and tons of concrete were poured over his grave. Public opinion had turned against him to such a degree that it was believed Chicago residents might desecrate his body.

Resources and Further Reading

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McNamara, Robert. "The Pullman Strike of 1894." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 28). The Pullman Strike of 1894. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Pullman Strike of 1894." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).