Pullman Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the Pullman Strike, a major struggle between railroad management and labor resulted in federal intervention. The government successully employed the Sherman Antitrust Act to prosecute the striking workers, setting a precedent that stood as an impediment to collective bargaining until the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914.

Summary of Event

The Pullman Strike of 1894 was one of the farthest reaching labor-management disputes in United States history. Conducted in the midst of the most catastrophic depression to date, it was the most dramatic of a large number of strikes affecting the nation. The labor upheaval started in Pullman, Illinois, nine miles south of Chicago. What began as a dispute between the Pullman Palace Car Company (PPCC) and three thousand employees developed into a bitter struggle between twenty-four railroads serving Chicago and the American Railway Union (ARU), whose members voted to support their striking brethren in Pullman by boycotting Boycotts;Pullman Boycotts;and labor[Labor] Pullman cars. Before the strike ended, railroad traffic was stopped from Ohio to California, and the federal government had intervened in support of the PPCC and the railroads. Pullman Strike Labor unions;Pullman Strike Railroads;Pullman Strike Debs, Eugene V. American Railway Union Illinois;Pullman Strike [kw]Pullman Strike (May 11-July 11, 1894) [kw]Strike, Pullman (May 11-July 11, 1894) Pullman Strike Labor unions;Pullman Strike Railroads;Pullman Strike Debs, Eugene V. American Railway Union Illinois;Pullman Strike [g]United States;May 11-July 11, 1894: Pullman Strike[5930] [c]Business and labor;May 11-July 11, 1894: Pullman Strike[5930] [c]Government and politics;May 11-July 11, 1894: Pullman Strike[5930] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 11-July 11, 1894: Pullman Strike[5930] [c]Social issues and reform;May 11-July 11, 1894: Pullman Strike[5930] Pullman, George Mortimer Heathcoate, Thomas W. Darrow, Clarence Walker, Edwin Altgeld, John Peter Olney, Richard Hopkins, John P.

The town of Pullman was already famous. Built in 1880 by George Pullman, George Mortimer Mortimer Pullman, the town was widely, although not universally, acclaimed as a unique experiment. It housed all the essentials of life, from food stores to educational and entertainment centers to a multidenominational church. Despite the intentions of its founder, however, it was not a happy place. The preponderance of men among its 8,603 inhabitants indicated a social instability caused partly by George Pullman’s refusal to sell homes to his workers. The rents, fixed by Pullman to provide a return of 6 percent, were higher than in nearby towns. There was little democracy in the town government, and the company interfered with elections.

As landlord, George Pullman, George Mortimer Pullman imposed middle-class values that restricted his workers’ personal freedom. Among other things, they resented the strict prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Sufficiently concerned with his workers’ souls to erect a community church, Pullman rented the structure at fees too high for most religious denominations to pay. Additional grumbling occurred over company charges for utilities. Residents claimed that company spies watched them, and in the plant workers suffered from blacklisting and a policy of granting nearly absolute power to shop foremen.

In the depression of the 1890’s, while continuing to pay the usual dividends of 8 percent, the company drastically cut wages. Wage cuts of 30 to 50 percent, without corresponding cuts in already high rents, made it difficult for workers to provide adequate care for their families. In response, the workers formed a grievance committee to discuss their situation with the company. The vice president met with the committee, promising that no reprisals would be taken against workers for voicing their concerns. However, he then proceeded to fire three committee leaders, convincing many workers that a strike remained as the only practical option.

By the spring of 1894, desperate workers began flocking to the ARU, which, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, had recently won an astounding victory over the Great Northern Railroad. Led by Thomas W. Heathcoate Heathcoate, Thomas W. , the chairman of the Pullman Strike committee, the emboldened workers decided to strike the PPCC on May 11. A month later, despite Debs’s opposition, an ARU convention voted to stop handling Pullman cars after the company ignored efforts to settle the dispute. The union, by detaching Pullman cars from the trains, sought to deplete the revenues of the PPCC and force negotiations. Anticipating trouble with the railroads, Debs tried unsuccessfully to get support from the railroad brotherhoods, which opposed his industrial unionism, and from Samuel Gompers Gompers, Samuel of the American Federation of Labor, who charged Debs with dual unionism. African American African Americans;and Pullman Strike[Pullman Strike] railroad workers were less than cooperative. In spite of Debs’s urging, African Americans had been barred from ARU membership in a narrowly passed provision to the ARU constitution.

U.S. troops protecting a train during the railroad workers strike.

(Library of Congress)

Although Pullman workers received support from the ARU, the PPCC found stronger allies in the railroads, already organized into the General Managers Association General Managers Association (GMA), an organization of twenty-four railroad companies operating in or through Chicago. The railroads were determined to honor their contracts with the PPCC, insisting that trains run with Pullman cars attached. Alarmed at the rapid growth of the ARU, they were eager for a chance to crush it. The strike began on June 26, with workers either walking off the job or detaching Pullman cars. Railroad workers in twenty-three states honored the strike, producing a rapid halt in most freight traffic. The GMA retaliated by recruiting strike breakers. Fearing federal intervention, Debs ordered that violence be avoided and offered to operate passenger and mail trains without Pullman cars attached. The railroads refused. By the end of June, fifty thousand workers were idle across two-thirds of the country, and a stalemate had been reached.

From Washington, D.C., the administration of President Grover Cleveland Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and Pullman Strike[Pullman Strike] followed the strike with growing alarm, while in Illinois, Chicago Mayor John P. Hopkins Hopkins, John P. and Governor John Peter Altgeld, Altgeld, John Peter both sympathetic toward the union, kept police and National Guardsmen alerted for possible trouble. With local police ready to preserve law and order but unwilling to break the strike, the GMA General Managers Association worked through subterfuge to involve the federal government. Hoping to create public discontent, the GMA permitted transportation inconveniences, rejected freight shipments, and curtailed passenger service. Meanwhile, Attorney General Richard Olney Olney, Richard , a former railroad lawyer, instructed federal district attorneys to punish those stopping the mail. On June 30, Olney hired additional federal marshals, although mail trains continued to run on schedule. Next, he named Edwin Walker Walker, Edwin , a counsel to the railroads, as special federal attorney. Walker, in effect, assumed command of Justice Department affairs in Chicago.

On July 1, rioting broke out in a Chicago suburb which, together with exaggerated and alarmist newspaper reports of violence, gave Olney an excuse to intervene. On July 2, the federal government secured an injunction against the ARU under the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the next day President Cleveland Cleveland, Grover [p]Cleveland, Grover;and Pullman Strike[Pullman Strike] , ignoring Governor Altgeld, sent in federal troops to protect the United States mails. At the time, local officials had the situation in hand and Altgeld Altgeld, John Peter stood ready to use National Guardsmen if needed. The use of the Sherman Antitrust Act against a union, which Congress never intended, was only slightly less startling than the terms of the injunction issued by two federal judges with railroad sympathies. In a sweeping denial of basic rights, the court enjoined union leaders from communicating with their own membership. Had this order been obeyed, it would have destroyed the ARU. On advice of special counsel Clarence Darrow Darrow, Clarence , Debs ignored the injunction, an action for which he later went to jail.

Far from restoring order, the arrival of federal troops led to increased violence on July 5 and 6, when mobs destroyed more than $340,000 worth of railroad property. Unqualified and hastily deputized federal marshals contributed to the violence. With the arrest of ARU leaders on conspiracy charges, however, the strike weakened. By July 11, trains were operating in most of the nation, although the strike continued officially for three more weeks.


Apart from property damage, forfeited earnings and wages, and business losses, the Pullman Strike destroyed the ARU as an effective organization. It introduced new and threatening antilabor weapons, and it led to the eventual dissolution of the model town of Pullman after repeated court suits. Finally, although a presidential commission subsequently absolved the strikers of all responsibility, Debs lost faith in the capitalist system and became a devout convert to socialism during his six months of incarceration. The strikers were also casualties. Many workers returning to their jobs found out that they had been permanently replaced and blacklisted from future railroad work. The failure of the strike was a major defeat for labor unions in the United States. The ARU had fought an unenviable two-front war against organized management and concerted efforts by the federal government to stop the strike. Few would venture such a battle again.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brommel, Bernard J. Eugene V. Debs, Spokesman for Labor and Socialism. Chicago: Kerr, 1978. Based on manuscript sources, this biography provides an excellent overview of Debs’s life and his role in the Pullman Strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1949. Reprint. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1992. Still the most readable and reliable biography of the great labor leader to date. The 1992 reprint offers a new bibliography and pictures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942. Although dated and written in dramatic form, this is a good starting point for the background and major events of the Pullman Strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Potter, David M. The Chicago Strike of 1894: Industrial Labor in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. The best overview for the general reader of the forces leading up to and the events of the Pullman Strike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Carl S. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Provides an interesting sociological account of the conditions among the railroad workers that made the Pullman Strike possible, if not inevitable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Warne, Colston E., ed. The Pullman Boycott of 1894: The Problem of Federal Intervention. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1955. Presents views by the major participants and investigative materials by U.S. government agencies.

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