The Pullman Strike was a nationwide conflict between labor unions and the railroad industry which began in Pullman, Illinois on May 11, 1894 when 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company began a wildcat strike in response to recent reductions in wages as a result of the Panic of 1893. This strike halted all railway traffic west of Chicago.
During the Panic of 1893, the Pullman Company had substationally decreased wages and implemented a mandatory sixteen hour work day because demand for luxury cars was much lower because of the panic.
When workers set up a delegation to meet with the owner, George Pullman, he refused to meet them to discuss their demands. This was the precipitator of the strike.
The American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs actively supported the strike and led a boycott of all Pullman cars. No railway worker would run trains containing Pullman cars and they also refused to hook or unhook Pullman cars on existing trains as well. The union declared that if any of their members were disciplined for this that they would start a nationwide strike of all rail companies effectively shutting down the entire railway industry.
The boycott began on June 26, 1894 and by June 30th, over 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit working rather than handle Pullman cars. As a result, railway companies began to hire strikebreakers to replace the striking workers. This just made the entire situation more dangerous.
On June 29, 1894 in Blue Island, Illinois, Eugene Debs led a peaceful gathering in order to gain support from fellow railway workers. After the gathering, several impassioned participants became enraged and began to set fire to buildings and even derailed a locomotive.
Sympathy strikes began to occur nationwide and the strikers were getting into increased violent outbreaks against strikebreakers and the entire railway industry was virtually shut down.
In response to this the railway companies were successful in getting Richard Olney, who was the general council of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway appointed as a special federal attorney responsible for dealing with the strike.
Olney was able to get a federal injunction barring the union leaders from supporting the strike and ordering all railway workers back to work or they would face termination from their jobs. Debs and the other union leaders ignored the injunction and federal troops were called into action to break the strike.
President Grover Cleveland sent in the U.S. Marshals and approximately 12,000 U.S. Army troops to break the strike on the premise that the strike was preventing the mail from being delivered and that the strike was also violating the Sherman Antitrust Act and as well as threatening public safety.
The arrival of the military and the additional deaths of workers also helped to increase the violence. During the course of the strike, thirteen workers were killed and fifty-seven were wounded. Property damages totaled $340,000 ($8,818,000 in 2010 dollars).
Civil as well as criminal charges were filed against the union and Debs and the Supreme Court in it’s In re Debs decision, stated that President Cleveland had not exceeded his constitutional authority.
Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld was so angered at President Cleveland for utilizing federal troops instead of using Altgeld’s plan to use the Illinois State Militia to maintain order that he used his influence as the head of the Illinois Delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1896 and was able to block Cleveland’s renomination as the Democratic Presidential candidate. William Jennings Bryant was the nominee and he lost to Republican William McKinley later that fall.
Later, a national commission was formed to look into the causes of the strike and it was found that the main cause of the strike was Pullman’s “paternalism” and they also stated that the company town of Pullman, Illinois was in their words, “un-American.”
Also, in 1898, the Illinois State Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest itself from Pullman, Illinois and the city was annexed by the City of Chicago.