Senator Sherman on the Pullman Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In June of 1894, a strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company threatened to bring the American railroad industry to a halt. The strike was initiated in response to widespread layoffs of skilled workers, reduced wages, and the high cost of living. President Grover Cleveland secured an injunction that hastened the end of the strike, but the issue regarding worker compensation in an economy in the midst of a depression persisted. In an interview with the Cleveland Gazette, US senator John Sherman, a Republican from Ohio, commented on worker wages, arguing against tipping when employee pay remained too low.

Summary Overview

In June of 1894, a strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company threatened to bring the American railroad industry to a halt. The strike was initiated in response to widespread layoffs of skilled workers, reduced wages, and the high cost of living. President Grover Cleveland secured an injunction that hastened the end of the strike, but the issue regarding worker compensation in an economy in the midst of a depression persisted. In an interview with the Cleveland Gazette, US senator John Sherman, a Republican from Ohio, commented on worker wages, arguing against tipping when employee pay remained too low.

Defining Moment

In the late nineteenth century, the United States experienced a number of major industrial changes. The railway industry continued to boom during the post-Civil War years, providing consistent work to skilled and unskilled workers alike across the country. The rail boom allowed George Pullman–who popularized the luxury sleeping car–to construct a town (Pullman, Illinois) in which his twelve thousand employees would live and work at his facilities.

However, in 1893, another industrial shift occurred–a major economic depression that would last five years. Industrialists like Pullman were forced to cut back on staff and wages in order to weather the economic storm. In the railroad industry, a large number of skilled workers who enjoyed considerable autonomy with regard to on-site practices were released from their jobs. Those who remained employed saw wage cuts, more regulations, and reductions in hours. Even wage structures were dramatically altered–Pullman’s company changed from paying employees by the day to compensating them for each completed task (“piece rate” wages), which Pullman’s managers believed would incentivize workers to increase production.

In Pullman, Illinois, wages and hours changed but the cost of living did not. Even the depression could not sway Pullman to lower rents or other expenses in his working community. This trend, coupled with the company’s wage and policy changes, led workers to walk off the job in 1894. Although Pullman’s managers did engage and negotiate with the striking workers, the two sides saw little common ground. Adding to the issue was the fact that Pullman was considered by the public to be a model employer. Therefore, the striking employees turned to the founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), Eugene V. Debs, to assist them in their efforts. During the strike, more than one-third of Pullman’s workers were members of the ARU.

Debs and the ARU brought nationwide support to the strikers. Although many (including Debs) were concerned that a boycott of the rails would foster a backlash, the ARU proceeded to call for one. To the surprise of many, the public’s response to the boycott was positive. Although public support was strong, political leadership was more concerned about the virtual shutdown of the railroads. Many mayors, governors, and legislators held their tongues on the Pullman strike, hoping to avoid garnering a negative reaction from organized labor, which was continuing to build strength in the latter nineteenth century. Violence and large-scale confrontations between the railroad managers and the ARU led President Grover Cleveland to dispatch the National Guard to intervene in Chicago.

Despite the sentiment in favor of the workers, Pullman’s company held fast in its refusal to work with the ARU and the striking employees. Even as Debs–who recognized the high improbability of success–called for arbitration, the company would not negotiate. Ultimately, the strike was put down, Debs was arrested for interfering with the US mail system, and the Pullman Company welcomed back workers who renounced Debs and the ARU.

Author Biography

John Sherman was born in Lancaster, Ohio, on May 10, 1823. His father, an attorney, died when Sherman was six years old. Self-described as “troublesome,” Sherman attended public school before studying law under his brother, Charles, and his uncle, a judge. Sherman, then a Whig, was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1854. When the Republican Party formed, Sherman joined and rose through party ranks. He was elected to the US Senate, serving as Ohio’s senator from 1861 to 1877. He left the Senate to become secretary of the treasury, but returned to the Senate in 1881, holding the post until 1896. Among his accomplishments were the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890). After a year-long stint as President William McKinley’s secretary of state, Sherman retired in 1898. He died on October 22, 1900.

The Cleveland Gazette, a weekly newspaper published in Cleveland, Ohio, between 1883 and 1945, was that relatively rare thing at the time of the Pullman strike: an African American newspaper. It was founded and run by Harry C. Smith (1863–1941), a strong advocate of civil rights and later (1926, 1928) Republican contender for governor. At the time of Smith’s death, the Cleveland Gazette was the longest-running African American newspaper in existence.

Document Analysis

Senator Sherman was known as an advocate for labor as well as an opponent of anticompetitive business practices. Four years before the Pullman strike took place, he had sponsored a landmark bill–the aforementioned Sherman Antitrust Act–which targeted monopolistic or otherwise anticompetitive corporate policies. Such policies, Sherman believed, resulted in cutthroat competition among the largest corporations, which frequently caused employee reductions, lower wages, and longer hours for workers.

Among the myriad issues involved in the Pullman strike was what Sherman sees as an imbalance in work and wages among the conductors and porters aboard a Pullman car. Porters (most of whom were black), Sherman says, earned wages that were barely enough to sustain themselves. Pullman customers would feel obligated to give a tip to the porters, given their knowledge of the relatively meager wages they earned.

When approached by the Cleveland Gazette in July of 1894, Sherman offered his thoughts regarding tips for porters. An occasional tip for good service, he says, was not the problem. Rather, the concern was the fact that tips were an integral part of the porter’s salary. Porters needed tips in order to simply attain a living wage, Sherman argues. The fact that they had to earn tips on every trip amounted to what he dubbed “extortion” by the railroad companies. If porters were paid a reasonable wage, Sherman said, passengers would not feel the need to supplement the porters’ income.

The Gazette article adds the suggestion that Sherman would also take issue with the wide disparity in wages paid to porters and conductors, particularly when porters seemed to perform the lion’s share of the work in the Pullman cars. Porters earned on average $10 to $25 per month. Those holding the position of conductor (which the article states was nonexistent only a few years earlier), on the other hand, were earning between $75 and $100 monthly. The article argues that the position of conductor should be abolished, as porters often performed the overwhelming majority of the conductors’ daily duties in conjunction with their own assigned tasks.

Such a change in policy would accomplish three goals. First, it would make possible an increase in wages for the woefully underpaid–in the eyes of Sherman–porters. Second, it would save the Pullman Company significantly by doing away with a largely redundant and expensive position. Third, it would eliminate the expectation that Pullman’s patrons should be responsible for paying a large percentage of porters’ salary by generously tipping these underpaid employees.

Essential Themes

Senator Sherman was one of a number of key political figures who were unafraid to speak out in favor of the workers embroiled in the Pullman strike. The author of the Sherman Antitrust Act, Sherman offered a brief statement to the Cleveland Gazette that focused on but one area of the broad range of pay and work environment issues that were at the center of the strike. Still, his comments could have been applied to any number of industries experiencing massive growth and prosperity (even during the 1893 depression) with regard to low-wage workers.

While Sherman was not averse to the idea of tipping, he viewed with disdain the fact that tips were seen by the Pullman Company as a major part of porters’ wages. Pullman car patrons–not the employer–were expected to bring the porters’ salaries to a living-wage level. Such a policy meant that porters should receive a salary that kept them out of poverty only if they performed well enough on the job to receive adequate tips from the passengers. In his comments to the newspaper, Sherman said that the burden of paying a living wage to porters should fall on the employer and not the patrons.

According to the Cleveland Gazette, Sherman, took issue with the fact that porters were grossly underpaid. The Cleveland Gazette compared the pay of porters to that of sleeping car conductors (whom the paper called “ornaments”). The position of conductor was relatively new, and even when conductors –who earned $65 to $75 more per month than did porters–became part of Pullman’s workforce, porters still performed a great many of their tasks.

Unstated but implicit in the article was an irony: Pullman (like many other industry giants) was so concerned with the ongoing depression that it was willing to cut wages and workers. However, he was still willing to make room and provided good compensation for conductors, even if the work they were expected to perform had been done by less expensive porters. By abolishing conductors and the practice of tipping for porters, the article suggested, Pullman could pay porters what they deserved without a strain on the company’s budgets.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Burgan, Michael. The Pullman Strike of 1894. North Mankato: Compass Point, 2007. Print.
  • “John Sherman’s Life and Career (1823–1900).” Shermanhouse.org. John Sherman House, n.d. PDF file.
  • Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1964. Print.
  • Papke, David Ray. The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1999. Print.
  • Schneirov, Richard, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore, eds. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1999. Print.
  • “Sherman, John, (1823–1900).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Office of the Hist., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
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