Imagine living in a town where all of the houses, the schools, the parks, the libraries, even the churches, were all under the absolute control of one private citizen. For most people, such a situation is unthinkable, not to mention unethical. But, it was reality for a few thousand people in a small town south of Chicago in 1894.
The town was called Pullman, named after the man that ran it all, George Pullman. Mr. Pullman was an immensely successful businessman- he made train cars that were designed to be as comfortable as possible for overnight travelers. He had began, in 1867, with 10 million dollars, and by 1894 had amassed 62 million dollars. His train cars carried passengers over three quarters of all the railroads in the United States. 1
With this fortune, Mr. Pullman built a town on the shore of Lake Calumet, a few miles south of Chicago. He was motivated, in part, by a desire for wholesome conditions for his workers. Of course, profit was also a factor. From the beginning, he planned to profit off of the town through rent and utility charges. Pullman had invested 8 million dollars in the town, and he expected a 6 percent return on the cost of housing through rent payments. 2
Things had run fairly smooth from the town’s founding in 1881 up to 1893. The town had received favorable press during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and many predicted Pullman represented the next step for industrial labor. Then, everything fell apart. The Panic of 1893 set in, and many laborers were laid off in November. 3 Mr. Pullman had not established any sort of social safety nets in his town, so when people were no longer employed and couldn’t afford food, let alone rent, they really had nowhere to go. Pullman also refused to lower rents, and also slashed wages. Things were getting desperate in his model town.
Enter Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union. The American Railway Union, or ARU, had been founded only a year previously, but membership was massive and nationwide. Debs served as president of the union. Debs, with the ARU, planned to do away with traditional railroad unions, or brotherhoods. These brotherhoods were usually small, included only certain professions, and often squabbled amongst one another, which railroad companies took advantage of. Because of this inclusive approach, the shop workers in Pullman, who mostly repaired train cars, were eligible for membership in the large and powerful ARU.
To join the union was not a simple or easy decision, however. George Pullman actively discouraged unionization in his town, and to join one could get an employee fired from the shops. The people of Pullman joined anyway, though, and in large numbers. They had to go to nearby villages, such as Hyde Park, to actually join, because unions and labor organizers were not tolerated in the town. It was totalitarian control such as this that, in a way, caused the strike in the first place. Nobody could voice their grievances in a meaningful way, such as demonstrations or petitions, so they enlisted the help of the ARU.
Many people sided with the people of Pullman during the strike, literal tons of food were donated to help feed the people of the town. While the press railed against violence in the railyards of Chicago, sympathetic accounts documented the desperation and misery in the streets of the model town. 4 However, most of the country did not support the larger strike. They felt sorry for the people in Pullman, but they hated Debs and the ARU strikers all around the country.
Why was this? Simple inconvenience was part of it. When the ARU agreed to help the shop workers, it was decided that, unless the Pullman Company entered negotiations over wages and rents in Pullman, the ARU would refuse to allow any trains pulling Pullman cars to pass. George Pullman obstinately refused any negotiations, claiming there was nothing he could do about rents and wages. 5 As previously mentioned, there were Pullman cars on three quarters of the railroads in the country. Once the ARU went into action, rail traffic was paralyzed across the country.
Things were so severe that the federal government stepped in, and began to send federal troops, as well as U.S. Marshals to stop the strikers all around the country. Because of the scale of things, the strife in Pullman was largely forgotten by most of the country. To an uninformed observer, it would easy to forget about the plight of some workers in Illinois when people in Montana, New Mexico, California, and 24 other states and territories weren’t able to travel or get their mail. 6