Today in History: The Pullman Strike Virtually Stopped the Rail System

important footnote in history of american labor remembered

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

On May 11, 1894, thousands of Illinois train workers went on strike. Then 150,000 union members joined them. The Pullman Sleeping Car Strike, or Pullman Strike, went all the way to the Supreme Court.

"National Guardsmen firing into the mob at Loomis and 49th Streets, July 7th,"
The Pullman strike ended when the U.S. Army was called in to handle the conflict. Image by G. W. Peters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The American labor union movement has seen countless ups and downs. One particularly high-profile case began in Illinois at the Pullman Company, which built and leased thousands of passenger train cars around the United States.

On May 11, 1894, several thousand employees of the Pullman Company suddenly went on an unannounced strike, the Pullman strike, to protest the difference between their wages and the cost of living in the Pullman-owned company town. Before it was resolved, union members would cripple the national rail system, President Grover Cleveland would become directly involved, and a court case regarding the strike would reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

In his video series The Skeptic’s Guide to American History, Dr. Mark Stoler, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont, detailed the strike and its legacy.

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

“[The 1894 Pullman Sleeping Car Strike] took place in the supposedly model company town of Pullman, Illinois,” Dr. Stoler said. “Pullman plant workers declared a strike after five wage cuts in the year, totaling anywhere from 25 to 40% of their wages—those wage cuts were due to the Depression of 1893—but while you had these five wage cuts, there was no reduction in company rent.”

With pay being cut and prices staying the same, workers found themselves in increasingly impoverished conditions. The strike soon followed. Dr. Stoler said that in response to the strike, Pullman simply closed the plant..

“On appeal by the striking plant workers, the independent American Railway Union under Eugene Victor Debs voted to aid the strikers by nationally boycotting Pullman cars; they simply would not deal with Pullman cars,” he said. “The railroads began to fire union members who did boycott Pullman cars. Debs then called upon his union, 150,000 strong, to walk off the job.”

With the industry suddenly 150,000 employees short, the entire national rail system literally came to a screeching halt.

All the Way to the Top

With interstate commerce near a standstill and the eyes of the nation on the railroads, pressure on Illinois intensified.

“The governor of Illinois, John Altgeld, was sympathetic to the union,” Dr. Stoler said. “He refused to send in state troops; at which point the railroad owners went to President Grover Cleveland, whose attorney general, Richard Olney, sent in 3,400 special deputies over the protests of Governor Altgeld. The grounds: the need to keep the trains running for the mail and the fact that the federal government was responsible for interstate commerce.”

Finally, violence broke out. According to Dr. Stoler, Eugene V. Debs was jailed for violating a federal court injunction that had prohibited the strike, calling the strike “a combination in restraint of trade” that violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. Famous attorney Clarence Darrow represented Debs challenged the legality of the injunction, as well as Debs’s imprisonment, and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where the rulings were upheld.

“When Debs emerged from jail, he announced that he was now a socialist; and soon, thereafter, the Socialist Party of America would be formed with Debs as its standard bearer,” Dr. Stoler said. “Debs would run for president of the United States five times as the candidate of the Socialist Party; in 1912, he would poll nearly a million votes.

“But that was as close as socialism ever came to being accepted in the United States, and it really was not close at all.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily