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Why You Should Know About the 1894 Pullman Strike

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. 

By
Jack Kelly,
Episode #69
political cartoon of the pullman strike

Pullman’s employees were simply calling for an independent arbitrator to decide what was fair. George Pullman had declared there was “nothing to arbitrate.” Neither he nor the railroad corporations would budge.

The New York Times said that what had started out as an industrial strike had grown, and was “in reality a struggle between the greatest and most powerful railroad labor organization and the entire railroad capital.” It soon became clear that it would be a fight to the finish.

The effects of the strike began to be felt beyond the rail yards. The price of meat and other food skyrocketed. Businesses from mines to sawmills had to shut down for lack of transportation. A shortage of coal closed power plants. Ice became scarce. Commuters couldn’t get to work.

The strike illuminated the cracks in American society that threatened to become chasms.

Rioters congregated along rail junctions to let loose their anger. They blocked the trains that supervisors tried to run in spite of the boycott. They smashed windows on passenger trains hauling Pullman cars. Eugene Debs and other union officials worked tirelessly to keep the strike peaceful.

Despite these minor incidents of vandalism, the workers held together and were on the way to winning the strike. At that point, President Grover Cleveland decided to intervene on behalf of the railroads. Cleveland’s administration was deeply pro-business and his attorney general, Richard Olney, held positions as a railroad lawyer and director, while he was in office. He didn’t see any conflict.

Olney declared that the strike had brought the country to the “ragged edge of anarchy.” Rather than let the two sides work things out, Cleveland asked the courts to issue injunctions outlawing the strike. He sent federal soldiers into Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, and other hot spots to suppress the workers.

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