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Erik Loomis @ErikLoomis
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This Day in Labor History: June 26, 1894. The Pullman strike begins, which the government brutally crushes. On another terrible day in American history, let's talk about this famed strike and how we are returning to these days very rapidly.
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.
Pullman 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.
Outraged, his workers walked off the job on May 11, 1894.
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 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 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.”
Grover Cleveland’s attorney general was Richard Olney, former general counsel for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway. Citing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Olney ordered federal attorneys to issue injunctions against the ARU to protect his railroad friends.
So Grover Cleveland, who was the closest thing in US history to a "Democrat in Name Only," really only disagreeing with Republicans on tariff issues, was all-in with the railroads, the least popular institution in American life.
The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed to limit monopolies. But the courts routinely threw out its original meaning and only used it to bust unions by saying they unfairly restricted trade. Does the Supreme Court rewriting laws to fit their own agenda sound familiar to you?
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, 12,000 U.S. troops, aided by U.S. Marshals, came in and ended the strike on the pretense that the Pullman Strike interfered with the delivery of the mail and violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
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.
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.
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.”
13 strikers were killed and 57 wounded during the strike. Debs went on trial for conspiracy to obstruct the mail, but the 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.
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.
Debs 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 the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, it remains a powerful weapon against organized labor today.
Altgeld successfully prevented the renomination of Grover Cleveland as the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, although there were many reasons a very different man such as William Jennings Bryan won it instead.
The Pullman Strike has always been one of the few labor history stories that really interests activists. There aren't too many of those. But it's become even more important today because the government is moving back into the labor-busting business big time.
People such as Neil Gorsuch really want us to return to 1894 and they are doing all they can to make it happen. We saw that in the grotesque decisions today. Tomorrow, Janus is probably coming down, stripping public sector unions of critical rights. Next year, this will get worse
For Republicans from Anthony Kennedy and Donald Trump on down, the nation as it was in the 1890s with its rampant exploitation and enormous class divides is the concrete goal. Karl Rove was stating this publicly 15 years ago. They are making progress by the day.
Increasingly, the story of Debs and the Pullman workers is not just a story of the Bad Old Days. It is the story of us.
And as I have stated many times in these posts, the most critical issue in whether a strike succeeds is what the government does. If the government wants to crush the strike, it will, as it has done hundreds of time in American history. If it wants to play fair, workers can win.
And as we saw in the Supreme Court cases today, 5 justices on this court will simply rewrite law to serve the political and financial interests of their corporate masters. Abood was decided 9-0 in favor of unions only 40 years ago. It will probably be repealed tomorrow.
And the only reason Abood will be repealed is Republicans don't like unions. Kennedy admitted this in oral arguments, when he went on a rant about public sector unions increasingly the cost of government. What does that have to do with constitutional interpretation?
Of course, nothing. But these are hacks. As was Richard Olney. As was Chief Justice Melville Fuller, the racist, anti-union horror Cleveland named to the Court.…
For years, I have been calling the period we live in The New Gilded Age, which has gained in popularity lately. For good reason. Because the Debs era is our era. And we need to respond like Debs and never give up.…
Back tomorrow with a discussion of the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World.
I should mention as well that a lot of the text in these tweets come from Chapter 4 of American History in Ten Strikes, which is published in October. You can preorder though!…
Technically, Pullman isn't one of the 10 strikes I highlight, but I still talk a lot about it, showing the power of the state in deciding strikes.
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