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A Bitter 1894 Railway Workers Strike Culminated In Labor Day

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While the vast majority of Americans enjoy a welcome day off from work on Labor Day, the "unofficial end of summer", unbeknown to many, a bitter strike and the bloody strife that ensued, culminated in the establishment of this federal holiday.

Called the Progressive Era by historians, the period of time spanning the 1890s to the 1920s saw widespread activism and political reform that was aimed at dealing with the ever growing economic disparities and social inequalities that resulted from the rapid industrialization and urbanization of the United States.

Part of an impending Progressive Movement, unionization was focused on dealing with the poor working conditions that resulted from unregulated corporations, large businesses, and trusts, along with the unchecked actions of ruthless capitalists or industrialists (aka "robber barons") who corrupted legislators, engaged in unethical business practices, and exploited natural resources and workers.

Undated Portrait of George Mortimer Pullman

Undated Portrait of George Mortimer Pullman

Established as the Pullman Palace Car Company by industrialist George Mortimer Pullman (1831 - 1897) in 1863, the Pullman Company (a parent company whose name was later shortened to Pullman Inc., in 1927) fabricated and operated a fleet of luxury railway sleeper cars bearing the Pullman name on most of the overnight passenger trains that operated in the United States

In response to the declining revenues that resulted from the "Panic of 1893" (a disastrous United States economic depression that ended in 1897), Pullman laid off or reduced the wages of workers employed at the Pullman Company, South Side Chicago, Illinois manufacturing plant.

Undated Photo of an Early Pullman Truss Rod Sleeping Car

Undated Photo of an Early Pullman Truss Rod Sleeping Car

Although, by 1894, Pullman had been manufacturing its cars at a loss, in order to hire back workers to rectify the downturn in business that was attributed to the effects of the economic depression, this information was never conveyed to company employees.

While George Pullman resided in a mansion, most of the aforementioned workers were required to reside in company owned housing (which according to one's position within the company differed in monthly rental cost, location, and size) in the four-thousand acre town of Pullman, Illinois, where they paid above market rates for rent (which included the utilities) and company store goods, which were never reduced.

Undated Photo of the Pullman Mansion that Once Stood at 1729 South Prairie Avenue

Constructed in 1876 and Demolished in 1922 the Pullman Mansion Once Stood at 1729 South Prairie Avenue

Not yet unionized, many of the disenfranchised Pullman factory workers were eventually induced to join the American Railway Union (ARU) of unskilled railway workers, which had been established by Eugene V. Debs (1855 - 1926), in 1893.

Supported by, but not started by the ARU, Pullman Company employees initiated a wildcat strike on May 11, 1894.

Refusing to acknowledge the ARU and unmoved by his embattled workers' plight, George Pullman refused to converse with the strikers.

Tensions escalated when Pullman declined to arbitrate the unilateral wage cuts and Debs declared an ARU member boycott of any train that included a Pullman car on June 26, 1894.

Political Cartoon Depicting Pullman Squeezing His Workers with Low Wages and High Rent

Political Cartoon Depicting Pullman Squeezing His Workers with Low Wages and High Rent

Although Debs' action was summarily criticized by Samuel Gompers, of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Railroad Brotherhoods labor unions, and the press, rather than service a Pullman owned car, some 125,000 workers from twenty-nine railway lines walked off their jobs four days later.

Affected railroads coordinated their efforts and hired scabs and strikebreakers to keep their trains moving.

Increased hostilities led to extensive property damage that exceeded eighty million dollars, sabotage, and violence, which compelled the US attorney General, Richard Olney to obtain a federal injunction on July 2, 1894 that barred union support for the strike and ordered strikers to cease their activities, or risk being fired.

Depiction of Burning Freight Cars in the Panhandle Railroad Yard, South of 50th Street on July 6, 1894

Depiction of Burning Freight Cars in the Panhandle Railroad Yard, South of 50th Street on July 6, 1894

A Colorized Drawing by Charles Mente Which was Derived From Sketches by G. A. Coffin

While their was some concern over the legality of his actions, fearing a complete shut down of the national railway system (as most of the railways west of Detroit, Michigan had been affected by the strike and/or the boycott) and obstructions to US Mail delivery (which relied upon dependable railway mail car movements), President Glover Cleveland (1837 - 1908) ordered United States Marshals and Army troops to enforce the terms of the injunction.

Armed Marshals and Soldiers Posed with a 4-4-0 Steam Locomotive

Armed Marshals and Soldiers Posed with a 4-4-0 Steam Locomotive

Subsequent law enforcement actions and continued violence resulted in the deaths of thirty strikers and injuries to another fifty-seven.

The aftermath of the Pullman strike was a Pyrrhic victory for many of those involved. 

Undated Portrait of US President Grover Cleveland         1897 Portrait of Eugene V. Debs

Portraits of US President Grover Cleveland (left) and Eugene V. Debs (right)

A reconciliatory effort that was unanimously approved by the United States Congress, six days after the conclusion of the Pullman strike, President Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day an official federal holiday, which was recognized by thirty states in 1894.

Charged with obstructing the mail (a federal crime) and defying the provisions of the injunction, Debs and ten other ARU leaders were convicted on federal charges and sentenced to six months in prison.

Portrait of American Railway Union Officers Rogers, Elliott, Keliher, Hogan, Burns, Goodwin, and, Debs

American Railway Union Officers Rogers, Elliott, Keliher, Hogan, Burns, Goodwin, and, Debs

The ARU would eventually be disbanded after a short lived merger with the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth established the Social Democracy of America.

Although workers were rehired when Pullman's business improved toward the end of the depression, they had to renounce their union memberships, salaries were never raised, and company owned housing and company sold goods costs were never lowered.

Strike leaders were blacklisted.

With much of the blame placed upon the Pullman Company, a subsequent federal investigation into what caused the strike determined that the company's unwillingness to negotiate with its workers in a far manner was the primary reason for the conflict.

Largely discredited by the results of the strike and the boycott, it would be decades before labor movements regained their credibility and unions began reasserting themselves.

Gerald Farinas Photo of the Pullman Family Tomb in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery

Gerald Farinas Photo of the Pullman Family Tomb in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery 

Interred in a lead-lined mahogany coffin that was covered in tar paper and asphalt, encased in a room-sized block of concrete, which was then buried under a layer of railway rail and several layers of concrete (out of his family's fear of the desecration of his grave site), George Pullman, who died of a heart attack on October 19, 1897, at the age of 66, was buried in a family plot in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery.

Deemed illegal by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1898, Pullman was forced to divest itself of its company town, which was subsequently annexed and incorporated into the City of Chicago.

Undated Photo of the Town of Pullman as Seen From the Arcade Building

Undated Photo of the Town of Pullman as Seen From the Arcade Building

In this day and age, it is difficult to imagine how the unheard grievances of disenfranchised railroad workers resulted in a bloody conflict between strikers, strikebreakers, the U.S. army, and the U.S. Marshals Service could have culminated in the statuary, now peaceful Labor Day holiday that is officially celebrated in all of the U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories to this day.