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The Pullmans Strike And Its Effect On Society History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The American history is dotted with countless labor struggles. Some are more important to the labor movement than others. According to Fossum, 1999, the Pullman strike of 1894 is a classic labor struggle that played a major role in splitting the movement in addition to raising the doubts about the ability of unskilled employees to win their demands. Simply put, the Pullman strike started as an uprising against unjust labor practices before quickly escalating into the national occurrence that it is famous for today. Because of this reason, it is necessary for individuals who seek to understand the intimate details of the American Labor movement to spend a great amount of their time looking into this strike. In fact, the Pullman strike is one of the greatest known in history and hence, contributes a great deal to the history of the Labor movement in America. This paper goes into the details of the strike, seeking to understand it from both the point of view of the workers as well as the employers.

Key words: Pullman, strike, Labor, employers, workers, union

The Pullman’s Strike of 1894 and Its Effects on the Labor Market and Economy

George Pullman is infamous for being the mastermind behind building lavish sleeping cars for the railroad industry, but most people are not aware that he was also a developer of a model working community. In fact, in 1881, he founded a town in his own name that was located in the outskirts of the city of Chicago, Illinois. He was the much loved sponsor of 12000 belated individuals. These very same ‘happy individuals’ only three years later declared Pullman, both the town and the man a wound on the body politic. The insult to Pullman was made by the then President of American Railway Union Local 269, Jennie Curtis. It is important to note this dramatic change of view, and what could have possibly transpired in order to spark it. What could have made own community hate him in such an extensive manner? The answer lying in understanding the strike can be summed up to be the simple fact the George Pullman in light of the great depression of 1893, knew what was best for his employees whether they agreed to his ideologies or not (Dobson 2007, p. 40).

Like all other companies in America, the depression of 1893 had an overwhelming effect on the Pullman Palace Car Company. In addition to the labor force being cut from 5500 to a mere 3300, the remainder of employees was subject to an average pay cut of 25%. Moreover, those that remained had to tolerate the fact that there was a reduction in the number of hours they could work. Considering the great changes, absolutely no effort on Pullman’s behalf was made to decrease living expenses (Sciabarra 2004, p.30). Truthfully, the situation was so pathetic that one man had to work for 120 hours to get a check of a meager 7 cents after the company had subtracted rent and other expenses. This caused Pullman, Illinois, in May 1894 to become the stage for battle between a bitter labor force and the government because of unjust labor practices.

As was the norm, George Pullman was not empathetic to his workers and their apparent lack of ability to support their families financially. However, he still met with worker representatives to discuss their plight regarding their problems (Burgan, 2007 p. 29). As expected, he refused to meet their demands hence he did not restore their paychecks to their original size and neither did he reduce the rents the paid. Almost immediately after this meeting, the representatives were sacked; a move that only worsened the situation. The workers took this blatant undermining of their rights to mean that action was necessary to correct the terrible situation. Finally, on May 11 1894, the workers put down the tools, which in turn shut down all operations of the Pullman Company. The local media was rather taken back by this path that the workers chose to take and made headlines out of the story. This was partly because George Pullman was widely known for being a model employer and because there was a very high rate of unemployment at the time. However, these two factors did little to deter the employees from their cause as they were determined to end what they considered oppression.

Eventually, the workers realized they needed external help if they were to meet their goals and objectives. It was only natural for them to turn to Eugene Debs, creator of the American Railway Union (ARU) and a renowned labor leader of his time. According to Sciabarra (2004 p. 40) Debs called the first ever ARU’s national convection with the people of Pullman being attendance. Although the union was in favor of the use of a boycott to have them heard, Debs felt great need for arbitration as a better option. It was then agreed that a boycott would only be enforced if all other attempts to restore normalcy came to dead end. Nevertheless, by June 15, 1894, it was obvious that officials of Pullman were not willing to meet with union representatives under any circumstances. As a consequence the ARU carried through with their promise and put into operation the boycott on June 26, 1894 at 12pm. The simple order was that all members were to keep the mail moving but Pullman cars were to sit on the sidetrack.

The national boycott only served as fuel to the fire that was Pullman employee’s desire to win. This worried Pullman officials greatly and especially so when the numbers of the employees on strike increased dramatically within three days. This was because a certain stipulation that if an employee was fired for honoring the national boycott, all union men that worked in the yard were to walk off (Burgan, 2007 p. 45). . In June 29, 1894, the number had reached a staggering 50000 workers. It was at this point that Pullman’s officials realized that the strike was not going to end anytime soon if they did not take action on their part. Like many employers caught in this kind of predicament, Pullman officials hired strike breakers in order to break the strike although they knew this would not solve the problem.

What had began as a peaceful strike took a turn for the worse. The momentum that had initially been directed in the correct direction, it became obvious that the peace and tranquility would not last for long. When Eugene Debs travelled to Blue Island on June 29, 1894, the union members decided to take matters into their own hands. Following a peaceful rally that was held to gain more support for the boycott, strikers started acts of hooliganism. They derailed a locomotive, destroyed the yards as well as setting fire to all things that moved. These actions were sort of an answer to Attorney General Onley’s prayers. These actions would give him the power to use an injunction against the strike. According to Burgan, (2007 pg 40), an injunction is when a court orders certain actions to be stopped. Eventually, Onley was given the injunction he was passionately seeking since he was very much against the strike since he viewed it as dangerous to the welfare of the nation.

A picture showing the Pullman Strike in Chicago

The injunction served its purpose as it was supposed to. It frustrated the efforts of the he striking workers. It allowed government troops to be sent in to remedy the situation if mail delivery was indeed being tampered with. Furthermore, it stripped striking workers of their leadership. (Brown, 2004, p. 13)This made the striking workers to be completely infuriated. An angry mob ragged baggage cars cross tracks hence acting as an obstruction to the passing of mail on June 3, 1894. The next day President Grover Cleveland sent out an order for several federal troops to be sent to Chicago in order to restore harmony in the area and ensure no further interruption of mail.

The public then shifted to the side of the government the strike ended soon after without their objectives not being met. Debs and other leaders of the union were arrested on July 10 1994 for interference of delivery of US mail but were released days later. The strike formally came to an end on July 11, 1984 with the conditions that all employees be hired back to their previous job positions. However only two thirds were rehired with the rest being blacklisted or seeking employment elsewhere. Employees of the Pullman Palace car company were rehired on condition that they signed yellow-dog contracts. Yellow dog contracts is a situation whereby the employee shows that they are not a member o any labor union and in event that they join one in future they shall be dismissed (Brown, 2004, p. 26)

Lindsey, 1942 states that the loss caused by the strike cannot be quantified in dollars, class bitterness or human misery. Even so, the strike is attributed to the annihilation of the American railway Union, defeat of the then governor of Cleveland nomination for presidency and the financial damages caused to the railroads. Railroad companies lost up to $80 million as regards business operations and $6 million in relation to property damages while law enforcement charges took up about $400000. Nonetheless, the most tragic loss to the US is the tragic loss of life. It is estimated that 34 people were killed during the chaos and commotion (Sciabarra, 2004 p. 40). In addition, the strike emphasized the fact that there was a serious labor problem n the US. Therefore, although the Pullman strike may not have achieved what it was set out to achieve but it serves as a reminder of the desire by the labor movement to triumph over its numerous hurdles.

It is understood that the Pullman’s strike not only had short-term effects of resolving the dispute between the workers and management but had long term effects as well. Essentially, the Pullman strike of 1894 left behind a legacy in the US labor movement that has an impact to date. The leader of the American railroad Union leader served six months in prison and thereafter became the spokesperson for the new Socialist party in it first two decades of life (Brown, 2004, p. 30). Additionally, the antitrust act was created in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland which made a strike anywhere in the United States illegal. It prohibited all unions and workforces to participate in any strike. Later, amendments to the act were made to this act whereby guidelines for organizing a strike were pit n place as opposed to banning them all together. Furthermore, the Erdman act was passed in 1898 outlawing ‘yellow-dog’ contracts hence workers were allowed to join union organizations.

The Verizon strike of August 2011 comes closest to the details of the Pullman’s strike. It is strike around 45000 Verizon workers put down their tools. The workers, together with their workers union were demanding that their contracts for their jobs to be renewed. The union was demanding an 8% pay rise over a period of four years ad at the same time employees should pay more to cover for their health insurance policy. The strike followed sixteen months of negotiation with the union stating that had it not been for the greediness of Verizon, the company is well up enough to maintain the welfare of its workers (Crain’s New York Business, 2012,). During the strike, Verizon workers resulted to vandalism as an act of defiance. They shut of power, used glue to jam the fence, and blocked the entrances in Newark and Dover. However, the management and the union could not get to an amicable agreement. It was agreed that they would continue to use the old contracts as the bargaining for the new contracts continued.

Strikes among union workers usually begin as a way for the workers to be heard. However they usually end up causing destruction of property and even worse loss of lives. Union workers and the management of companies should use more amicable ways to resolve their issues.

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