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Unloading rolls of paper from a horse drawn cart. Nov 7th 1903.

[Detail] Unloading rolls of paper from a horse drawn cart. Nov 7th 1903.

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: The Pullman Strike

In 1893, an economic recession forced George Pullman's Palace Car Company to cut back on its manufacture of railroad cars. Pullman also cut his hourly employees' wages by an average of 25 percent, though management's wages stayed the same. Pullman employees lived in a company town of the same name, just outside of Chicago. As residents of this town, they paid their rent to the Pullman Company, which refused to lower the rent even while it slashed wages. Search on Pullman for photographs of the company's factory and town.

In the Spring of 1894, Pullman employees joined the American Railroad Union (ARU) and organized a committee that lobbied Pullman management for increased wages or decreased rent. The company made neither concession but fired three of the employees who had served on the committee. The next day, the Pullman workers voted to go on strike.

Though the strike began on May 11, by mid-June, the Pullman Company still refused to receive communication from the ARU or to meet with arbitrators. The ARU stepped up its pressure by refusing to run trains carrying Pullman cars until the company agreed to arbitration. Although the Union's boycott badly interrupted American transportation, putting significant pressure on the Pullman Company, it responded only by firing the striking railroad workers.

The pressure was not to be ignored, however, and the Pullman and other railroad companies asked Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld to put a stop to the strike. When he refused to interfere, the railroad companies appealed to President Grover Cleveland. On the grounds that the strike was interfering with the U.S. mail, (railroad companies were deliberately attaching Pullman cars to mail trains) the president appointed a committee to deal with the situation.

The committee sent in 4,000 strikebreakers carrying badges and guns. When enraged workers throughout the Chicagoland area began attacking trains, the committee sent in 12,000 federal troops, about half the U.S. Army. Sent ostensibly to restore order, the troops also broke the strike.

Chicago's Mayor and Governor Altgeld were incensed against Cleveland for putting federal troops under the command of the railroad companies. The dispute resulted in Cleveland's loss of his bid for re-nomination by the Democratic Party two years later. Meanwhile, ARU president, Eugene V. Debs, and other labor leaders were sent to jail, while the Pullman Company rehired only those employees who signed a contract promising to never join a union while employed at Pullman.

Search on strike for over 300 images documenting the many labor strikes that took place in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

  • What do these photographs reveal about the mood of the labor movement in the Chicagoland area during the early-twentieth century?
  • What did workers hope to achieve by striking and how?
  • What if any other options did workers have for obtaining better wages and working conditions?
  • Why do you think that Governor Altgeld refused to send in troops to break the Pullman strike?
  • What options did President Cleveland have for responding to the requests of the railroad companies?
  • What reactions do you think that President Cleveland and his committee could have expected from their decision to send in 4,000 armed strikebreakers?
  • How do you think the Pullman strike would have ended if President Cleveland had refused to break the strike as Altgeld had?
  • Why do you think that President Cleveland's handling of the Pullman strike cost him the re-nomination by the Democratic Party?