The Chaotic social atmosphere of the 19th century hosted a series of events that shook the world. Such events as the Civil War overthrew the vestiges of an outdated social order, while occurrences such as the economic panic of 1890 provided the catalyst for challenging welfare capitalism. Henceforth towards the end of this turbulent century, a market collapse would give rise to the Pullman Strike of 1894. The nature of this strike resonated deeply with the conscious of Americans, and generated support ranging from charities to law firms. In turn this sentiment eventually became nation wide, as the demands of the Pullman worker echoed throughout the streets of Chicago, and reverberated in the halls of congress. In brief, the vestiges of the Pullman strike struck a chord with the collective thoughts of Americans in that time period, and forever challenged the unbound privileges of those whom controlled the wealth.
It is 1894 and the unemployment rate is estimated to be around 17%, and the quality of life is bleak. Author and Journalist John Swinton wrote, “ Do we hear cries of distress from a million idle people? The wail of hunger from men, women, and children? The groans of anguish from the multitudes who suffer in many a great city? Do we see hordes of men, mingled with women, looking for work which they may earn their daily bread? Does strife rage between the workers and the capitalist? Do we hear the tramp of a hundred thousand soldiers, bearing guns, with which they are ready to shoot their own countrymen?”(1) This observation came towards the end of the year, but the expression was merely a summation of what the populace was thinking. Additionally, the workers in the company town of Pullman also conveyed similar thoughts when they forwarded a letter to the mayor. Upon reading this letter the Mayor of Chicago responded by writing to George Pullman “ Sir-I have examined the conditions at Pullman yesterday, visited even the kitchens and bedrooms of many of the people. Two representatives of your company were with me and we found the distress as great as it was represented. The men are hungry, and the women and children are actually suffering. They have been living on charity for a number of months and it is exhausted…” The letter ends by stating “ No matter what caused this distress, it must be met.”(2). In brief the livelihoods of many stood in the balance as the crisis of capitalism spread throughout the country, but the workers of Pullman were already taking active measures to fight off the contagion brought by the economic panic.
The efforts to notify the mayor, and George Pullman were of no help. Instead The only reply that these letters were met with was an increase in rent, and a reduction in pay. The aforementioned conditions described in the letters eventually became worse as the income levels of these individuals declined as a direct result of Pullman’s policies. Eventually on the tenth of may “ a committee of workers presented a list of grievances to Thomas H. Wickes, a Pullman vice president, and received assurances that they would suffer no reprisal for the petition”.(3) In response to this petition the company fired “Three members of the committee that had presented the petition”(4). This news was quick to reach the ears of the workers, and “Immediately without exception, dropped their tools and struck”. In short, the workers and inhabitants of Pullman’s company town began to occupy the property of their corporate boss George Pullman. What started out as a series of letters eventually evolved into a highly organized effort to restore the economic security that was lost during the panic of the 1890’s.
Two months prior to the strike the workers had already enlisted the help of Eugene Debs. Debs had been successful in organizing strikes before which were highly reliant on his ability to reign in the benefits of broad ranging support. Henceforth, Debs would rely on coordinating the sympathies of the middle class with the efforts of the Pullman workers. Organizations such as the Civic Federation offered material, and attempts to arbitrate with George Pullman. Additionally, the “Law firm of Mayor John Hopkins donated 25,000 pounds of flour and meat and established a medical clinic”(5). Meanwhile the Chicago Daily News provided a rent-free office to coordinate relief efforts.”(6). Finally “the active trade unions of Chicago supported the strikers fully, and the fire department collected almost $1,000 for the strike fund”. In brief the entire city came to the aid of the workers, and by the time it was all over, the strike had captured the attention of our nation in a few short months.
Unfortunately what started in the spring of 1894 would eventually come to an end during midsummer. Moreover because of internal disagreements, and the appearance of Federal troops none of the demands put forth by the worker council were met. In the end the most these workers got was a congressional investigation, and despite the committee offering a balanced opinion it did very little to change things. Instead, events like these would help build momentum for the progressive era., an era, which reflected the prior grievances of capitalism, while also calling for a more equitable and stable social system. In closing such events at the Pullman strike helped to perpetuate the progress of society by not only challenging the existing social order, but also by encouraging individuals around the world to think about what the strike meant. Perhaps it was Eugene Debs who summed up the Pullman Strike ‘s ability to spark the interests of humanity, and evoke the thoughts of others concerned with the progress of society “ The great lesson of the Pullman strike is found in the fact that it arouses widespread sympathy. This fellow-feeling for the woes of others-this desire to help the unfortunate…should be accepted as at once the hope of civilization and the supreme glory of manhood”(7).
1)Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: the story of a unique experiment and of a great labor upheaval. University of Chicago press, 1964. Page 1.
3) Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs Citizen and Socialist. University of Illinois Press 1982. P. 128