Building Livelihoods on the Line
Workers revolt in a company town designed to prevent labor unrest.GEORGE PULLMAN BUILT HIS COMPANY TOWN SOUTH OF CHICAGO in the 1880s with the hope that creating comfortable living conditions for his employees could preclude the protest and rebellion happening throughout the industrial city. Row houses with modern utilities sat directly south of the shops where workers built the company's signature palace rail cars. The town also boasted an artificial lake, ornate hotel, and an Arcade Building that held a theater, bank, library, post office, and stores. By offering affordable modern homes and cultural amenities for workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, Pullman promised a peaceful social order for both laborers and management.
THE PANIC OF 1893 DISRUPTED THE PEACE AT PULLMAN. To cope with financial losses, George Pullman cut wages while keeping rent steady. Workers walked out in protest on May 11, 1894. After failed attempts at arbitration, the American Railway Union launched a national strike in solidarity with Pullman employees that sparked violent confrontations in Chicago and paralyzed rail lines across the country. The federal government issued an injunction against the strike and on July 4th President Cleveland dispatched federal troops from Fort Sheridan to keep order in Chicago. George Pullman claimed authority over the company town with the backing of federal troops while employees appealed to fellow workers across the county by asserting the value of their labor and rights to wages and affordable homes.THE STRIKE DID NOT SURVIVE THE INJUNCTION AND DEPLOYMENT OF FEDERAL TROOPS. The national sympathy strike petered out by the middle of July, and the last Pullman strikers returned to work in September 1894. Meanwhile, ARU leader Eugene V. Debs was arrested for violating the injunction and the subsequent Supreme Court case dealt a blow to unionism by affirming the right of the federal government to issue an injunction against a strike. However, Pullman also received substantial criticism as it became clear that the bottom line took precedence over his proclaimed investment in workers' quality of life.