Home / General / This Day in Labor History: June 26, 1894

This Day in Labor History: June 26, 1894

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On this day in 1894, the American Railway Union, headed by Eugene Debs, called a nationwide boycott in solidarity with their striking members at Pullman, Illinois. This action turned a small strike into one of the largest labor actions in the nation to that date, led to the pioneering use of the injunction to crush labor unions, and ended with President Grover Cleveland calling in the U.S. military to serve as a private army for the railroads, ending the strike.

The railroad-caused Panic of 1893 was not only emblematic of how corrupt railroads controlled the American economy in the Gilded Age, but how plutocrats expected the poor to sacrifice during hard times. George Pullman, owner of the Pullman Palace Car Company, which made sleeper cars for the railroads, created his own company town, south of Chicago. He provided workers everything they would need–housing, schools, stores. He also charged them high rates to live there, would not employ someone if they did not rent from him, and would evict them if they left his employment. William Carwadine, pastor of the Pullman Methodist Church wrote of the total company domination, “It is a civilized relic of European serfdom” and of Pullman, “He is the King and he demands to the full measure of his capacity all that belongs to the insignia of royalty.”

When the Panic of 1893 hit, Pullman began losing money. His response was to lower wages by 25% while keeping the rent for his housing unchanged. In protest against this, as well as against working days that sometimes reached 16 hours, Pullman workers attempted to meet with the big boss, but Pullman refused to talk to them and fired three of the leaders. In response, the Pullman workers went on strike on May 11, 1894.

Pullman workers leaving their workplace for the day.

A young organizer named Eugene Debs started the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1893. Debs believed in an industrial union that represented all white workers on the railroad, skilled and unskilled, as the key to improving their conditions. The ARU opposing the traditional railroad brotherhoods that represented only elite workers and which had help break the Great Southwest strike against Jay Gould in 1886. That the ARU still discriminated based upon race represented the overwhelming racism of white workers toward non-white competition. Solidarity might extend across the working class, but it hit a brick wall on the issue of race. Despite this and despite dislike from the brotherhoods, the ARU quickly found its legs, defeated the powerful James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railroad in a strike, and had 150,000 members within a year.

The ARU did not represent the Pullman strikers. But acting in solidarity with their fellow railroad laborers, the ARU refused to move any Pullman cars. An official boycott began on June 26 and like the 1877 Railroad Strike and the 1886 eight-hour strikes, generated its own momentum as a larger protest against corporate domination. By June 29, 150,000 workers were on strike and the American train system, vital to the nation’s economy, ground to a halt. American labor leaders saw it as a battle not just against Pullman, but all their corporate enemies. The Chicago Federation of Labor president said, “We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman company we are aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.”

Union members refused to run trains with Pullman cars which didn’t really affect rail traffic all that much as trains without union cars were let through. When the switchmen were disciplined for not running the Pullman cars, the entire ARU went on strike on June 26. By June 29, 150,000 workers were on strike and the American train system ground to a halt. Sympathy strikes across the nation damaged rail traffic even more. Basically, American workers, who rightfully blamed the rail companies for the Panic of 1893, started taking out their frustrations on the rail industry, the cause of many of their sufferings.

President Grover Cleveland had named Richard Olney, general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway as his Attorney General. With this kind of fair and impartial background on the matter, in his great wisdom Olney decided to issue an injunction against the ARU support of the strike. To justify the injunction, Olney used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, which while intended to limit monopolies, became a favored tool of industry and government to crush unions instead. The federal courts and Supreme Court supported this interpretation. No doubt Antonin Scalia would have been proud to be a member of the Gilded Age federal court system. When Debs and the ARU refused to obey the injunction, Olney and Cleveland called out the military over the objection of Illinois Governor John Altgeld, who was sympathetic to the strikers. Commanded by General Nelson Miles, known for his role in crushing the last Native American resistance in the West, 12,000 U.S. troops, aided by U.S. Marshals, cracked down, using the pretense that it interfered with the delivery of the mail. Miles hated Debs, thought the strikers were defying the federal government, and followed through on his orders with relish. The next year, Debs proclaimed in a speech, “The American Railway Union challenged the power of corporations in way that had not previously been done.” This was why the government would not let them win.

Pullman strikers confronting the National Guard outside the gates to the Pullman factory.

On July 3, the military entered Chicago, which outraged the previously pretty peaceful strike. Between July 4 and July 7, fires raged through parts of Chicago as workers used them to try and protect themselves from the troops and were just generally extremely angry. One of these fires burned several buildings from the previous year’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Only July 7, the military fired into the crowd, killing at least 4 strikers and wounding around 20. The same day, the military arrested Debs and other ARU leaders and the strike began to fall apart. On August 2, the Pullman plant reopened. 13 strikers were killed and 57 wounded during the strike and its repression. Debs went on trial for conspiracy to obstruct the mail, but these U.S. Attorney dropped these charges, supposedly because a juror got sick, and instead the court sentenced Debs to 6 months for violating the injunction.

Federal troops crushing the Pullman strike.

Serving his prison sentence, Eugene Debs read Karl Marx, became a socialist, and emerged as perhaps the greatest leader for working-class rights the country had seen to that date. He would become a 5-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, running in 1920 from prison where he was sentenced for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 when he criticized World War I.

The injunction would become the greatest tool the capitalists had to crush labor and in the aftermath of Taft-Hartley, it remains a powerful weapon against organized labor today.

Still enraged by Cleveland’s actions, Altgeld successfully prevented the renomination of Grover Cleveland as the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, though one would be silly to credit him entirely given the rise of the Populists and the mania for silver coinage, along with general outrage at Cleveland’s mishandling of the Panic of 1893.

You can visit the Pullman site today in a limited way. A couple of the original buildings still exist but you can’t go in them. The company housing today makes up a somewhat enjoyable neighborhood to wander around in. There’s a small museum that was closed when I visited. There has been a bit of talk of using the site for the Obama Presidential Library or perhaps to turn it over to the National Park Service; in any case, too much American history exists here to let it rot into the prairie.

This series has also discussed the Pittston Strike of 1989 and the beating of the women and children at Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912.

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  • bradp

    A little off topic, but you deserve kudos:

    Many libertarians are prone to argue in favor of “Right-to-Work” laws on the basis that government protections for unions have tilted the scale in their direction. As such, RTW laws, even though they are a government intervention, are libertarian because they counteract union advantages.

    I’ve looked for any of them to provide some evidence for this, but I haven’t seen it.

    Meanwhile, you deserve thanks for keeping it in my head just how absurd that thinking is.

    • DrDick

      Many libertarians are prone to argue in favor of “Right-to-Work” laws on the basis that government protections for unions have tilted the scale in their direction.

      I am sorry, but that is simply farcical on the face of it, even without factoring in the effects of Taft-Hartley.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Vachel Lindsay, “Altgeld the Eagle”:

    Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
    Whose name the few still say with tears?
    Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
    Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years
    .

  • One of the Blue

    A major reason why RTW is unfair is that the federal courts have held that a union must represent non-members (free riders) in the bargaining unit in the same way it represents members. In other words under RTW the union is obligated to spend money on the free rider, but the free rider is under no obligation to contribute to that cost.

    In other countries where union membership is not mandatory, non-members do not have access to representation by the union; they have to pay their own representative.

    • bradp

      Yeah.

      I’ve wondered if that would be an acceptable solution to the problem. It seems to me if you want to be fair, those who don’t want to unionize shouldn’t pay dues, but shouldn’t be represented by the union.

      I have a suspicion that both sides would oppose that sort of compromise, though.

      • solidicitizen

        Largely because employers would be incentivized to give the non-union employees slightly better wages and benefits. Everyone leaves the union because it costs more to get less, problem solved.

        • bradp

          One thing to note about minority unionism is that it would allow unions to be far more fluid and spontaneous.

          If there were a more constant and imminent threat of collective activity, workers accepting payment to not unionize wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as they would always be under pressure to continue with the concessions.

          • DrDick

            You really do not understand anything about the effects of scale and power differentials, do you?

            • Holden Pattern

              Isn’t that tautological with “libertarian”?

              • DrDick

                Yes.

  • howard

    speaking of hard times, the world the four federalist society supreme court justices want to return us to – the world of the commerce clause prior to 1940 – was a world of regular panics, recessions, and depressions. this is the nature of unregulated oligarchic capitalism, and apparently this is what the federalist society thinks the revolutionaries who founded the united states had in mind.

    • Good times for all!

      It’s hardly a coincidence that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression happened as the New Deal regulatory state was being torn down. The future’s so bright, I got to wear shades.

      • Cody

        Yes, I hear sunglasses are very vital to retaining your eyesight after a nuclear blast.

      • howard

        hardly a coincidence at all.

        and neither is a coincidence that it accompanies and helps accelerate the decline of organized labor as a countervailing force.

        and neither is it a coincidence that it took the biblical 40 years after the depression for historic memory to fade out and the right-wingers to mount their counter-reformation.

    • Davis X. Machina

      The revolutionary generation were tepid deists, or adherents to the local established faith, a few showy exceptions notwithstanding.

      You’d not catch them confusing political economics with moral theology. The second Great Awakening, and its sequelae, shuts their time off from ours.

  • wengler

    Good article. I remember a couple years back one of the more historic Pullman buildings burned down. Industrial history, like labor history, evaporates into thin air over time.

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  • CatoUticensis

    We’ve never come as far as we think we have.

    Here’s hoping Harris v. Quinn doesn’t turn out to be a shitshow.

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