In the final episode of our miniseries on Jack Kelly's The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, we learn how George Pullman's laborers fought back against his working conditions and wages with The Pullman Strike.
Although Debs was cautious about escalating the confrontation, the members voted to cease handling all Pullman cars on the nation’s rail lines until the strike was settled. They thought this would cripple Pullman revenues and force the company to negotiate. The railroad corporations decided to back Pullman. Even though the strike was not directed against these companies, they used it as an excuse to undermine the American Railway Union, which posed a threat they could not ignore.
The boycott began on June 26, 1894. Instead of allowing workers to unhook Pullman cars, railroad managers declared that trains would not run unless they included the cars. They even added Pullman cars to trains that normally didn’t carry them. The workers who refused to handle the cars were fired. The railroad employees responded by virtually shutting down the nation’s rail lines, especially in the West. In an age when so much of the country’s commerce depended on rail transport, and when many cities were virtually stranded without rail access, the strike quickly grew into a national crisis.
The upheaval raised fundamental questions about American society. Workers said there were two types of capital. “Money capital” came from those who had accumulated excess wealth. “Muscle capital” represented the time and hard work of the employees. Why should the owners of money capital make all the decisions and reap all the profits while whose who contributed muscle capital had to fight for a living wage?
The Pullman Company was a good example of this. George Pullman said he was forced to slash workers’ pay, but he continued to distribute very generous dividends to his shareholders even during the depression.
And what about the duty that corporations owed to society? Although they posed as strictly private entities, all corporations operated under privileges handed to them by government charters. The railroads in particular had been given subsidies and land grants from public coffers, much as corporations today are offered tax breaks to locate a plant in a community.
Americans believed in property rights. They believed in the virtues of free enterprise. But they also believed in the right of a citizen to receive a decent wage and to be treated with dignity in the workplace. In the Pullman strike, these two values came into direct conflict. Was a person’s labor, which was in essence his or her life, simply a commodity whose price was to be determined by the laws of supply and demand? Or would the rights of American democracy be extended to the workplace so that every employee was treated as a human being? That was the big question that had finally come to a head.