Railroads and Conflict in the West

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What happened in the Pullman strike?

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The Pullman strike was a major industrial conflict that took broke out right across the United States in 1894. The strike began when workers at the Pullman Company—which manufactured railroad cars—downed tools in response to cuts in wages. The company was based in Pullman, Illinois, which had gained the reputation of a company town, a place where almost every aspect of life was controlled by the Company. As such, none of the workers were unionized.

This created an opportunity for the American Railway Union (ARU) to get involved. They descended upon Pullman to get the workforce signed up and organized. The strategy of the ARU, under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs, was to stop the movement of trains with Pullman cars and to organize a national boycott against all such trains. Not all labor unions supported the boycott, however, which tended to undermine the overall level of support enjoyed by the strike. Nevertheless, the strike soon spread beyond Illinois, and began to affect rail transportation right across the United States. Soon large parts of the country had been brought to a virtual standstill.

The railroad employers, with the active support of President Cleveland, hit back. The Federal government obtained an injunction against the ARU and Debs to stop them from interfering with the operation of mail trains. Tampering with federal mail was, and is, a serious criminal offense, so by sabotaging mail trains the strikers were undermining the fundamental justness of their cause. Acts of sabotage continued, however, and Cleveland sent in the army to prevent any further obstruction.

Eventually, the strike petered out, but not before a number of people had been killed during riots and other disturbances. Substantial economic damage had also been done. Eugene Debs and a number of other strike leaders were sent to prison and the ARU was dissolved. Thus ended what was, for many years, the most serious outbreak of industrial violence in American history.

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The Pullman Strike was one of the major strikes in US history.  The strike started out because workers who lived in the company town of Pullman, Illinois were seeing their wages cut without corresponding cuts to the rent they had to pay their employer.  The strike then spread with the American Railway Union striking in sympathy with the Pullman workers against many railroads that served Chicago.  

President Cleveland, claiming that the strike was interfering with the US mails, sent troops in to end the strike.  Violence erupted and 13 strikers were killed.  Damage was done in the strike that would add up to millions of dollars in today's money.  The strike is seen as an example of how the US government was firmly on the side of employers during this time.

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