Please remember why we have Labor Day — The Panic of 1893 and the Pullman Strike

We’ll give you the short version, but you can find additional info by heading over to wikipedia. FAB is not responsible for any sense of deja vu you might  experience.

The rich railroad barons manipulated the markets to the point it all crashed in 1893, this caused widespread unemployment (by some estimates 11% -18%). The Panic of 1893 was the worst economic collapse the US had ever suffered and remained so until the Great Depression.

Rich baron George Pullman was asked by his low-wage workers, who worked 16 hour days, if he could help them out a little with lower rents (they lived in Pullman Co. housing) and cheaper goods (which they bought from Pullman Co. Stores), he refused to speak to them.  Pullman railcars were still in business and doing well at the time of the request. George Pullman worth was — put in current dollars — about $12.6 billion.

George Pullman had already cut the workers wages when the Panic started and demand for railcars went down, which caused company revenue to go down. But God forbid his lifestyle take a hit, so he left the workers rent, utilities, and goods prices fixed. The workers, understandably upset that he wouldn’t even discuss the situation, decided to strike. Pullman’s 3,000 workers, some of whom belonged to the American Railroad Union, called a wildcat strike on May 11,1894.  Basically all rail traffic west of Chicago stopped.

When other people who belonged to the ARU or simply worked on the railroads heard about the strike, and the reasons for it, they joined in too by boycotting Pullman. The boycott launched June 26, 1894. On June 29, 1894, Eugene V Debs hosted a peaceful gathering to obtain support for the strike from fellow railroad workers at Blue Island, Illinois.  By this time 125,000 workers on 29 railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars.

After the rally groups within the crowd became enraged and set fire to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive. Elsewhere in the United States, sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking strikebreakers. At its peak 27 states were affected and  a quarter million people were on strike.

This increased national attention and fueled the demand for federal action. And the railroad barons decided to take advantage of this and ultimately succeeding in having Richard Olney, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, appointed as a special federal attorney with responsibility for dealing with the strike. Can you say conflict of interest?

Instead of mediating, Olney obtained an injunction barring union leaders from supporting the strike and demanding that the strikers cease their activities or face being fired. Eugene Debs and other leaders of the ARU ignored the injunction.

President Grover Cleveland (a Democrat) on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail, violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and represented a threat to public safety sent in United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles. The arrival of the military and subsequent deaths of workers at the hands of the US military, led to further outbreaks of violence.

During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded.

Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, when, following the workers deaths at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland realized he’d been completely in the wrong, duped even, and needed to reconcil with the labor movement. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere 6 days after the end of the strike.

You would think that would be the end of it all, but . . .  given that during the strike an estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage (about $8,818,000 in 2010 dollars), Debs was thrown in jail to face trail. Civil as well as criminal charges were brought against the organizers of the strike and Debs in particular, and the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision, In re Debs, validating President Cleveland’s actions.  Did you expect to hear any different?

Clarence Darrow agreed to represent Debs and, after a “brilliant” defense, may have been “robbed of a victory” due to the U.S. attorney dropping the prosecution of a charge of conspiracy to obstruct the mail after a juror’s illness. Debs was then tried for, and eventually found guilty of violating the court injunction, and was sent to prison for six months

Despite what many think, Debs was not a socialist at the time of the strike. But, during his time in prison, he read the works of Karl Marx and after his release in 1895, he became the leading socialist figure in America. He ran for President five times, starting in 1900. Hence why a lot of uninformed people still today tend to say Labor Unions are socialist.  They are not. Nor are they the spawn of the Democratic party.

Moving on . . .  Despite the the Supreme Court’s ruling, Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld was incensed at Cleveland for putting the federal government at the service of the employers. And, for rejecting Altgeld’s plan to use the state militia to keep order, instead of federal troops. As the leader of the Illinois delegation to the Democratic Party Convention in 1896, Altgeld used his influence to block President Cleveland’s bid for renomination at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

A national commission formed to study causes of the 1894 strike found Pullman’s paternalism partly to blame and Pullman’s company town to be “un-American”. Three years later, in 1897, George Pullman remained unpopular with labor. He was buried in Graceland Cemetery at night in a lead-lined coffin within a reinforced steel and concrete vault to prevent his body being exhumed and desecrated by labor activists.

In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was then . . . annexed to Chicago.

Eugene Debs died in 1926,  and remains the only person to ever have run for president from prison.

And if you wonder “How bad was  it living in Pullman’s Co. Town?”  (From Wikipedia)

Pullman expected his town to make money. By 1892 the community, profitable in its own right, was valued at over $5 million.

Pullman ruled the town like a feudal baron. He prohibited independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings or open discussion. His inspectors regularly entered homes to inspect for cleanliness and could terminate leases on ten days notice. The church stood empty since no approved denomination would pay rent and no other congregation was allowed. Private charitable organizations were prohibited. In 1885 the illustrious Prof. Richard Ely wrote inHarper’s Weekly that the power exercised by Otto Von Bismarck (the unifier of modern Germany), was “utterly insignificant when compared with the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman.”

We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.
—Some alleged Pullman employees living in the Pullman-owned town

The Pullman community still exists, and is a nationally registered historic site.

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