In 1893, America went through a severe depression that caused significant cuts in wages and dismissal. The labor stoppages that people now commonly recognize as strikes are the natural outcome of tension occurring between management and labor. Management always wants to pay employees as low compensation as possible. Working people want compensation of what they consider a fair pay for a workday. The history of the U.S. strikes eventually helped generate the great middle class in the country and spread wages from the American prosperous corporations and wealthy companies among millions of citizens. Typically, each stoppage ended when authorities applied their power and strength against the unions. One strike, particularly the Pullman Strike that occurred in Chicago in 1894, was significant for Americans’ perception of the labor issue of that time. The struggle eventually split the movement and challenged the power of low-skilled employees to satisfy their labor demands (Fossum, 1999). Strikes forced millions of other workers to continue their fight to achieve more balanced relations between labor and capital while safeguarding public interests.
By 1894, the Pullman Company as the influential manufacturer of the railroad cars had started to exploit sleeping railway cars of the first class on almost every national main railroad. The manufacturing plants of the company were located in the town owned by the company on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois. The owner Pullman founded and later promoted his company town as a great community consisting of well-paid and content employees. However, the company’s laborers disagreed with him, particularly after the beginning of the economic depression in 1893. In the wake of economic depression, businessperson and inventor of the sleeping cars from Illinois, Pullman sought to cut expenses. Therefore, he fired almost one third of his employees and significantly decreased remaining wages. The manufacturer refused to diminish prices on food and housing in the town. George Pullman and his company owned the whole town and practiced automatic deduction of rent from the workers’ wages. Moreover, the owner forced his employees to work longer hours at the plant, but they did not decrease prices. Since the industrialist refused to increase wages and lower rent, employees started to unite and discuss the possible organization of strikes. During the depression, the company’s inventor sought to keep profit by decreasing labor costs.
During the spring of 1894, most of the Pullman employees joined the U.S. Railway Union, which was quite popular owing to the recent successful stoppage against the Great Northern Railroad Company that established the northernmost transcontinental railroad route running from Saint Paul to Seattle. The union had over one hundred thousand members and allowed white workers who served the railroad company join them.
When the Pullman Company considerably reduced its workforce and cut wages, the Pullman employees went on indefinite strike. Eugene Debs led the U.S. Railway Union and tried to organize railway workers throughout the whole nation. The workers of the Pullman Company decided to join the Railway Union, and Debs became the leader of a huge strike.
People deservedly consider the Pullman Strike as a milestone in the America’s labor history, which is also widely known as the workers turnout that was suppressed by the federal authorities. In addition to low wages and high rent, workers faced a 12-hour workday because of the depressed economy. Poor conditions forced thousands of the factory workers to walk out in protests. The Railway Union’s members soon joined Pullman workers since they refused to work and exploit trains that included sleeping cars manufactured by George Pullman. Over two hundred thousand industry workers soon joined the strike that effectively shut down the train traffic to the Western part of Chicago. Great sympathy for employees, their struggle, and attempts to be heard contributed to the pro-union sentiments across many American cities. People sympathized with the protesters not only in Chicago, Illinois. Everywhere, the public considered the Pullman workers as ordinary women and men, who were treated cruelly and despotically by their abusive employer.
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Despite the fact that many people supported the Pullman workers, their strike, unfortunately, lost the sympathy of some individuals. The ferocity of violations after thousands of workers in twenty-seven states had gone on strike, stopped rail traffic and caused significant concern and anxiety among citizens. Farmers were concerned about delivering their crops to the market while many other people worried about the mail and the effects of the strike on the availability of commodities and prices. Since Congress supported the use of federal troops, the U.S. mass media started to oppose the union and Debs.
Under the President’s direction, Attorney General Olney dealt with the labor riot. In the federal court, he got the injunction that banned the trade union leaders from supporting stoppage and required strikers to cease their activity or face dismissal. Since Eugene Debs, as well as other leaders of the Railroad Union, ignored the injunction, authorities called the federal troops to enforce it. However, some considered the state militia capable of handling the entire situation (Arnesen, 2004).
President Cleveland ordered the federal troops to quell workers’ uprising. The strike eventually ended with the intervention of the American army and led to dozens of people killed in violent clashes (Blackford & Kerr, 1994). In fact, the stoppage was an intense battle between the company’s management, employees, and two main figures, George Pullman and Eugene Debs. The strike greatly affected the Unites States and the public opinion on the basic labor rights, the role of government and management in managing labor controversies. In addition, in the course of the workers’ strike, the federal troops killed over thirty people and wounded nearly fifty strikers. The property damage amounted to about six million dollars, and the railroad companies lost over eighty million (Papke, 1999). The companies spent almost four hundred thousand dollars on law enforcement charges. Moreover, the rail workers lost over one million dollars in bonuses and salaries. The total loss of the railroads in Chicago was over five million dollars (Lindsey, 1942).
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