In part three of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, author Jack Kelly discusses the short reign of George Pullman and his costly attempt for riches.
Pullman’s model town was also founded on a money-making basis. It would attract and cultivate better, more efficient workers, Pullman thought. The amenities he provided residents would pay for themselves. They would prove what he called the “commercial value of beauty.”
The sleeping car king kept a rigid control over the town. He only rented the homes, never allowed workers to own them, and any resident could be evicted on ten days’ notice. There was no town government—the company ran everything.
Pullman assumed he had a right to regulate employees’ lives off the job as well as on. He posted lists of petty rules and regulations. He allowed no taverns in the town. He hired spies who reported on employees’ activities. One critic asked, “What is Pullman but a plantation, a penitentiary, a slave-pen, where 4,000 men come and go at the beck and call of one man?” Others called the project “well-wishing feudalism,” and, in the end, “un-American.”
Obsessed with control and with turning a profit, Pullman adamantly opposed labor unions. Like many Gilded Age employers, he saw unions as attempts to usurp his power. Simply talking about unionization or attending an organizing meeting could get a man fired. So with no release valve, the discontent in the model town festered for years.
During the business slump that began in 1893, Pullman cut the wages of his workers, but didn’t lower their rents. The discontent that resulted came to a head the following year, with a devastating strike that spread far beyond Pullman’s factory, turned into a national crisis, and held dire consequences for George Pullman and for the country.