This summer 125 years ago, about 1,000 troops moved from Fort Sheridan in Chicago to the company town of Pullman on the city’s southeast side to enforce a court ruling to stop a nationwide strike tied to that company because it interfered with the U.S. mail.
In the following weeks, soldiers, company thugs and scabs eventually got trains going again, and then the government arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned Eugene Debs of the American Railway Union (ARU) and others for “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the work stoppage, now remembered as the Great Pullman Strike.
The month-long fight was preceded by weeks of organizing and became the country’s largest general strike and a significant demonstration of union strength, involving up to 250,000 people in dozens of states.
Besides Pullman workers, it had workers from many companies and communities ensuring that railroads west of Detroit were halted since strikers either refused to touch Pullman’s cars or just uncoupled them from trains, stranding passengers and leading to increased food prices and shortages of resources for factories, power plants and other businesses.
Today, the idea of such a sympathy strike is gaining traction.
“Look at how unions banded together during the Pullman Strike,” said Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson. “The president of the Chicago Federation of Labor said at the time, ‘We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman Company, we’re aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.’
This is again a time when people have a growing consciousness of the ruling class and those with an insatiable need for more money, power and control,” Nelson added. “Working people are just now understanding the power they have when they stand together and claim our share of the profits we create.”
In the “Gilded Age,” from the 1870s to the turn of the 20th century, industrialists made enormous profits and dominated the labor force (and politicians). It was a time of economic chaos, too, with frequent crashes, and in 1893 the country fell into a depression. But tycoon George Pullman – who amassed great wealth by monopolizing fancy train cars for the rich – maintained stockholder dividends by slashing workers’ pay but not cutting their rents. (Five years earlier, Pullman bought thousands of marginal acres by Lake Calumet and built his factories and also an industrial version of a coal camp, with hundreds of houses rented to many of his 10,000 workers, along with company stores, a school and other features of a “company town” where he was landlord as well as boss.)
It was illegal to unionize then, but dozens of workers organized into a committee to ask that wages be restored and rents reduced. Pullman refused, and on May 12, 1894, thousands of Pullman workers walked off the job. Debs’ emerging ARU starting helping, having won the Great Northern Railroad strike the year before.
“The forces of labor must unite,” Debs told the ARU convention that June 12. “The dividing lines must grow dimmer day by day until they become imperceptible, and then labor’s hosts, marshaled under one conquering banner, shall march together, vote together, and fight together until workingmen shall receive and enjoy all their fruits of their toil.”
The ARU voted to boycott Pullman cars, and two weeks later the sympathy strike officially began on June 26, lasting until armed troops, police and National Guardsmen confronted unarmed strikers, provoking riots and attacking workers. Train cars were destroyed; more than 20 strikers or supporters were killed.
After the strike ended that Aug. 2, President Grover Cleveland named a committee to determine the strike’s causes. Its report blamed Pullman.
Most sympathy strikes and union boycotts are now prohibited by law, so they’re rare. However, the flight attendants union’s threat of such a walkout during Trump’s government shutdown, and recent teachers strikes from coast to coast, show that mass solidarity can still be powerful. Nelson said her call for a general strike had an effect in January. Some air traffic controllers called in sick, Nelson publicly warned that flight attendants were mobilizing, and that day Trump backed down and reopened government.
“No one knew what a general strike was,” Nelson said, “but it scared the p*** out of them.”
In 2019, a large-scale sympathy strike may not be imminent, but Nelson thinks one is possible again.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Nelson said at a commemoration of the Pullman strike, “but when I called for a general strike during the government shutdown, I absolutely expected people to say, ‘You’re crazy, lady. You can’t do that!’ Instead, what I got was, ‘What are we waiting for? Yeah, let’s go!’ ”
Bill Knight has been a reporter, editor and columnist for more than 50 years. Also an author, Knight is a journalism professor emeritus from WIU, where he taught for more than 20 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; for archives, go to https://mayflyproductions.blogspot.com/.