Pullman Strike: Definition, Summary & Significance

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  • 0:04 Background & Context
  • 2:10 The Pullman Strike
  • 4:04 Significance of the Strike
  • 5:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
The Pullman Strike of 1894 was one of the largest coordinated labor strikes in United States history. In this lesson, we'll discuss what provoked the strike, the response from businesses and the government, and the significance of the strike. A short quiz will follow to test your understanding.

Background and Context

There was a time in American history when labor activism was commonplace. Massive workers' strikes shut down entire industries for weeks, and business owners allied with government forces often clashed violently with strikers. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of workers and soldiers died. While such events in the U.S. are rare in the twenty-first century, in the late nineteenth century, nationwide work stoppages, such as the Pullman Strike, formed a harsh accompaniment to industrialization. But what led up to this particular strike?

To begin with, a severe economic depression hit the U.S. in 1893. It was the worst to date. Unemployment topped three million and union activity increased. A workers' newspaper proclaimed, 'A fearful crisis is upon us.' This crisis hit George Pullman's business hard. Pullman produced the Pullman car, or luxury railroad sleeping cars. The economic downturn forced Pullman to lay off one-third of his workers and slash wages by twenty-five percent.

But there was another aspect of Pullman's company. He lent his name to a company town outside of Chicago. The town had 12,000 residents, all of them Pullman employees and their families. The town offered many amenities, but the worker-residents paid a high price. Rents were up to twenty percent above average, residents were forced to buy all their necessities from a company store that charged exorbitant prices, and George Pullman owned all the property in the town. This gave him the power of eviction over any rabble-rouser worker.

In response to the economic downturn, Pullman fired hundreds of workers and cut wages, but the rents and prices in the town of Pullman remained high. Workers found that the price of rent was automatically deducted from their paychecks. For example, one worker received a paycheck for forty-seven cents, and the bank teller asked if he wanted to use that paltry sum to pay next month's rent. The worker replied, 'If Mr. Pullman needs that forty-seven cents worse than I do, let him have it.'

The Pullman Strike

Workers' organizations fought back against the conditions in the Pullman factory and town. Led by Eugene V. Debs, the American Railway Union (ARU) pioneered the Pullman Strike. The ARU was an industrial union, which meant it aimed to organize all workers in a single industry, rather than a single occupation. The ARU spearheaded a national strike in the summer of 1894, in which ninety percent of Pullman's 3,300 workers participated. This massive work strike shut down the country's railroad system. Workers and union members across America refused to work on trains with Pullman cars attached.

George Pullman and his managers devised a method by which they could call on the might of the U.S. government to end the strike. By connecting United States mail cars to the Pullman cars, they argued that the strikers were delaying the federal mail system. President Grover Cleveland agreed and ordered over 8,000 troops to Chicago in July 1894. Strikers and the troops clashed violently. In one particularly bloody encounter, U.S. troops killed twenty-five workers and wounded dozens more. The strikers responded with even more violence.

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