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This week in history: Pullman workers seize the day

On May 11, 1894, 2,000 Pullman workers walked off the job, kicking off a three-month-long strike that halted railroad transportation in the United States.

Pullman Car Works clocktower in 1919
The Pullman Car Works clocktower as it looked on Sept. 14, 1919, when this Chicago Daily News photo was taken. The building was the site of a massive workers strike in 1894 that led to the creation of Labor Day.
From the Sun-Times archive

As published by the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

For those living in Pullman, Illinois — then a town where most employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company lived — company president George Pullman governed nearly every facet of life. His company employed the workers, and at night, they went home to houses rented out by Pullman and shopped at stores he owned.

In 1893, a recession hit Chicago, causing the railway car company to lose profits. Pullman responded by cutting workers’ wages by 25%, increasing the number of hours worked and raising rents. The workers endured — but only for so long.

On May 11, 1894, 2,000 workers walked off the job at Pullman, according to a Chicago Daily News article published that day.

That morning, the company’s 4,300 employees arrived at the plant at 9:30 a.m. as usual, and for the first hour, work ran as it usually did.

“Then there was a stop at the freight shops at the northern end of town,” the paper reported. “About 150 men were at work here. They dropped their tools and the first notice that the townspeople had of the trouble was when the body of workmen marked out of the freight shops and started rapidly but quietly south to call out the men in the other departments.”

Word spread quickly throughout the company buildings: “The men are out! They’ve struck!” One of the leaders told a Daily News reporter that they expected “to have every man out by 10 o’clock.”

Up in the front offices, the company’s officers “were quite taken by surprise,” the paper said. They assumed the workers would accept Pullman’s offer to see the company books, which would allegedly prove that the company was operating at a loss in order to keep itself going “for the purpose of providing employment for the men.” Until then, they believed the employees would continue working.

By the time the 5 p.m. issue of the Daily News hit the streets, Pullman had already responded to the strikers with a message of his own. He recounted the telephone messages he’d received from managers informing him of workers walking off the job, and he concluded his statement: “I cannot account for this petition of the men in any way.”

The strike lasted for nearly three months. The workers enlisted the help of the American Railway Union for arbitration, according to Encyclopedia of Chicago, but the union failed to reach an agreement with Pullman. On June 26, all union members refused to work trains that included Pullman cars, which halted railroad transportation and affected every industry relying on railways.

At times, rallies to support workers turned violent, through ARU president Eugene Victor Debs tried to discourage it. During a violent demonstration in early July, workers derailed a train car attached to a U.S. mail train, which gave President Grover Cleveland cause to send federal troops to Illinois without Gov. John Peter Altgeld’s permission.

Over the next month, federal and state troops stopped any violent demonstrations and slowly got trains running again with the help of non-union workers.

Pullman welcomed back all the employees, who had promised not to unionize, on Aug. 2. Though the violence diminished some support of the workers, the public nevertheless supported them over Pullman. The strikers lost the battle, but they helped win the war for the right to unionize in the United States.