Skip Navigation

6.7: Pullman Strike

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
Turn In

The Pullman Palace Car Company manufactured luxurious sleeper cars for trains. The company’s built a whole town, Pullman, Illinois, to house its factories. Workers were forced to live there, to pay fixed rents, and to shop at company-run stores. In the 1893 recession, Pullman lowered the wages it paid workers but not the prices it charged them. In protest, the workers went on strike. To support their cause, the Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union called a boycott of all Pullman cars, clogging railyards. Eventually, a federal court ordered the ARU to end its boycott, and the strike ended.

The strike was highly controversial. As you read the following newspaper articles from the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Times, try to determine which paper supported the business owners and which one favored the strikers. The documents are paired—the first two show the newspapers’ differing coverage as the strike began; the second two show coverage of the beginning of the boycott, and so on.

Chicago Times, May 12, 1894

Source: The following two articles were written the day after the strike began. One article is from the Chicago Times, and the other is from the Chicago Tribune.


Nearly 4,000 Throw Down Their Tools and Quit

Refuse to Work Till Wrongs are Righted

Firing Three Men Starts It

Almost the entire force of men employed in the Pullman shops went out on strike yesterday. Out of the \begin{align*}4,800\end{align*} men and women employed in the various departments there were probably not over \begin{align*}800\end{align*} at work at 6 o’clock last evening. The immediate cause of the strike was the discharge or laying off of three men in the iron machine shop. The real but remote cause is the question of wages over which the men have long been dissatisfied and on account of which they had practically resolved to strike a month ago.

The strike of yesterday was ordered by a committee of forty-six representing every department at the Pullman works. This committee was in session all night Thursday night, and finally came to the conclusion to order a strike 4:30 o’clock yesterday morning. The vote stood \begin{align*}42\end{align*} in favor of a strike and \begin{align*}4\end{align*} against.

The terms upon which the men insist before returning to work are the restoration of the wage scale of 1893, time and one-half for overtime, and no discrimination against any of those who have taken a prominent part in the strike.

The position of the company is that no increase in wages is possible under the present conditions.... The position of the men is that they are receiving less than a living wage, to which they are entitled.... President George M. Pullman told the committee that the company was doing business at a loss even at the reduced wages paid the men and offered to show his books in support of his assertion.

Chicago Tribune, May 12, 1894



Committeemen Laid Off and Their Comrades Act

Two thousand employees in the Pullman car works struck yesterday, leaving \begin{align*}800\end{align*} others at their posts. This was not enough to keep the works going, so a notice was posted on the big gates at 6 o’clock saying: “These shops closed until further notice.”

Mr. Pullman said last night he could not tell when work would be resumed.

The American Railway Union, which has been proselyting for a week among the workmen, announces that it will support the strikers. Just exactly how, Vice-President Howard would not say. He intimated, however, that the trainmen on the railways on which are organized branches of the union might refuse to handle any of the Pullman rolling stock. It is not believed, however, that such action will be taken and it is equally impossible to see how the union can otherwise aid the strikers.

The walk-out was a complete surprise to the officials.... Mr. Pullman had offered to allow the men the privilege of examining the books of the company to verify his statement that the works were running at a loss. When the men quit work at 6 o’clock Thursday evening none of them had any idea of striking. But the Grievance Committee of Forty-six held a session at the Dewdrop Saloon in Kensington until 4:30 o’clock in the morning. At that time a ballot was taken which resulted: \begin{align*}42\end{align*} to \begin{align*}4\end{align*} in favor of the strike. A second ballot was unanimous. So a messenger was sent to the freight car builders to order them to stop, and all seventy-five walked out of the big gate. One department at a time, the men went out so that by 10 o’clock \begin{align*}1500\end{align*} men were out. Thirteen hundred and fifty men kept at work until noon, but only \begin{align*}800\end{align*} came back after lunch.

Included among the strikers were \begin{align*}400\end{align*} girls from the laundry, sewing-rooms, and other departments. In the afternoon, everyone—men, women, and children—put on their best clothes and assembled on the ball grounds. They stood in groups or rolled around in the grass, making no demonstration and acting in a subdued manner.

Chicago Times, June 28, 1894

Source: The following two articles were written on the third day of the national railway boycott.


Complete Shutdown of All Roads in the Territory Beyond the Missouri River

Chicago Center of Eastern Trouble

It May Be the Biggest Tie-Up in All History

All the western half of the United States has begun to feel the paralysis of the American Railway Union’s boycott of Pullman. From the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast, from the Canadian to the Mexican line, there is scarcely a railway that has not been gripped by the boycott. At every important division point in the west, southwest, and northwest, there are trains blockaded because the American Railway Union men will not run them with Pullman cars attached and the railway managers will not allow them to run otherwise. Some roads are absolutely and utterly blockaded, others feel the embargo slightly yet, but it grows in strength with every hour. It is spreading eastward from Chicago, too. No man can tell what the end will be....This is the end of the second day. This, when so far the American Railway Union has done little beyond ordering the withdrawal of switching crews, switch tenders, and towermen. By tomorrow, they promise that all conductors, engineers and firemen on freight and passenger trains will join in the strike and then, well, nobody can tell.

General Manager Ainsley of the Wisconsin Central notified his men that unless they go to work today he will supply their places with nonunion men. Then there may be trouble....

The six o’clock train on the Great Western started out with two Pullman sleepers and one Pullman diner. It ran about two car lengths. The conductor rang the bell, the train stopped, the whole crew got down and cut off those three cars. This with a squad of policemen standing by and the company’s officials looking on. The train pulled out without the Pullmans. It was the most decisive thing the boycotters have done yet.

Chicago Tribune, June 26, 1894


His Warfare on the Railroads is Waged Effectively

The American Railway Union became aggressive yesterday in its efforts to force a settlement between Mr. Pullman and his striking employees. By calling out their switchmen, it threw down the gauntlet to the Erie, Grand Trunk, Monon, Eastern Illinois, Morthern Pacific, Wisconsin Central, Chicago Great Western, Baltimore and Ohio, Pan-Handle, and Santa Fe railroads. It continued the warfare commenced the night before against the Illinois Central and continued it so successfully that the road had to abandon its suburban service at 9 o’clock. Its freight service was at a standstill all day and the same is practically true of other roads. In no case, however, did the strikers prevent the departure of any regular passenger trains from Chicago....

Deb’s master stroke, however, occurred at midnight, when every employee on the Santa Fe belonging to the American Railway Union was ordered out. Whether the men will obey the mandate will be learned today.

So far no marked violence has been attempted. Two hundred policemen put in the day in various railroad yards, but their services were not needed. Chief Brennan says he has \begin{align*}2,000\end{align*} men who can be massed at any point inside of an hour.

Chicago Times July 7, 1894

Source: The following two articles were written after federal troops had been in Chicago for three days.



Railway Union is Confident of Winning Against Armed Capital

Despite the presence of United States troops and the mobilization of five regiments of state militia, despite threats of martial law and total extermination of the strikers by bullet, the great strike inaugurated by the American Railway Union holds three-fourths of the roads running out of Chicago in its strong fetters, and last night traffic was more fully paralyzed than at any time since the inception of the tie-up....With the exception of an occasional car or two moved by the aid of the military, not a wheel is turning....

In the southwest section of the city all railroad property is considered fair game for the attack of the mob. Apparently the police o this district think so, too, for they stand by and appear indifferent to the annihilation of property. Wholesale destruction by incendiarism yesterday succeeded to the train wrecking of the day previous.... Nothing pertaining to the railroads seems sacred to the crowd. A splendid new towerhouse, which operates the Pan-Handle’s intricate interlocking switches... was only spared yesterday through the efforts of a party of striking tower operators of the railroad.... The strikers saw there was danger of the fire spreading from a burning toolhouse nearby, a plank walk connecting the two. They tore this sidewalk up and thus saved the towerhouse....

If the soldiers are sent to the southwest section of the city, bloodshed and perhaps death will follow today, for this is the most lawless element in the city, as is shown by their riotous work yesterday. But the perpetrators are not American Railway Union men. The people engaged in this outrageous work of destruction are not strikers, most of them are not even grown men. The persons who set the fires yesterday are young hoodlum....The setting fire to the cars yesterday was done openly where anyone could see it and when the slightest effort would have resulted in the apprehension of the guilty ones, but no such effort was made. The firemen were overwhelmed with the work of attending to a dozen different fires and could not, and the police on the scene apparently didn’t care to or would not make arrests.... At six o’clock, the police had not a single prisoner.

Chicago Tribune July 7, 1894


Hundreds of Freight Cars, Loaded and Empty, Burn

Rioters Prevent Firemen from Saving the Property

From Brighton Park to Sixty-first street the yards of the Pan-Handle road were last night put to the torch by the rioters. Between \begin{align*}600\end{align*} and \begin{align*}700\end{align*} freight cars have been destroyed, many of them loaded. Miles and miles of costly track are in a snarled tangle of heat-twisted rails. Not less than \begin{align*}\$750,000\end{align*}—possibly a while \begin{align*}\$1,000,000\end{align*} of property—has been sacrificed to the caprice of a mob of drunken Anarchists and rebels. That is the record of the night’s work by the Debs strikers in the Stock-Yards District.

They started early in the afternoon....They were done by 10 o’clock; at that hour they had a roaring wall of fire down the tracks.... The flames of their kindling reddened the southwestern sky so that the whole city could know they were at work.

This work the rioters did calmly and systematically. They seemed to work with a deliberate plan. There was none of the wild howlings and ravings that marked their work of the night before.

Chicago Times, July 15, 1894

Source: The two following articles were written as the strike was coming to an end. On July 10, Debs and other American Railway officers were arrested for violating a court order. They were held for several hours until posting \begin{align*}\$10,000\end{align*}bail.


Says the Battle is But Begun

More than \begin{align*}1,000\end{align*} railroad men held an enthusiastic meeting at Uhlich’s hall yesterday afternoon, the speakers being President Debs and Vice-President Howard.

President Debs then told the men that the situation was more favorable than it had been at any time since the men were called out. He said that telegrams from twenty-five points west of the Mississippi showed that the roads were completely tied up.... “I cannot stop now that defiance has been flung in our teeth by the General Managers’ Association. I propose to work harder than ever and teach a lesson to those bigoted idiots... The managers refuse to treat for peace. They say war to the end, and yet the law does not send them to jail. The law seems to be against us... but if the law makes it a crime to advise your men against the encroachments of capital by all the gods united I will rot in jail....

“There are men who have returned to their work, but they are traitors.... We are better without them. Let them range themselves on the other side and we can then close up ranks and see where we stand. We must unite as strong as iron, but let us be peaceable in this contest. Bloodshed is unwarranted and will not win. It is not by blood that we want to win.”

Chicago Tribune, July 15, 1894


The Strike Collapses with Wonderful Rapidity


He is Still Defiant While His “Union” Crumbles About Him

Like the last flicker of a candle that is almost burned out is the “war to the knife” defiance hurled yesterday by Eugene V. Debs in the face of the railroad managers of Chicago. Deserted by the men who answered his first calls for help, denounced by many who followed his banner of revolt only to lose their positions... with the very

Fabric of the American Railway Union falling upon his head and the support on which he stood slipping rapidly from under his feet, he declared that the strike was “on and would be fought to a successful issue.”

The value of Mr. Debs’ utterances at this stage of the game are shown conclusively by comparing threats and assertions he made yesterday... with the condition of affairs last night.... “The Northwestern will not be turning a wheel tonight,” said Mr. Debs. At midnight not a wheel on the Northwestern had failed to turn. The Northwestern people are inclined to look upon Mr. Debs’ declaration as a huge joke.... And so it was on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, which, according to Debs, was to suffer the same fate as the Northwestern. The officials of the road regard his threats with derision.

Section Questions:

  1. What events does each entry focus on? How do the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Times differ in the details they emphasize?
  2. What specific words does each newspaper use to describe the strikers?
  3. Which newspaper do you think was more supportive of the workers? Which newspaper was more supportive of Pullman?

Notes/Highlights Having trouble? Report an issue.

Color Highlighted Text Notes
Show More

Image Attributions

Show Hide Details
Files can only be attached to the latest version of section
Please wait...
Please wait...
Image Detail
Sizes: Medium | Original