The Pullman Strike: Consequences, Trends, and Legacies
By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University
The Pullman Strike was only the most spectacular of a number of disturbing events during the 1890s, which marked that decade as a crisis period for a decaying order of competitive individualism and proprietary capitalism. During this crisis, a massive depression (1893-98), bitter class conflict including two large strikes in the bituminous coal industry as well as the Pullman Strike, a national insurgency of the Populist Party which threatened the dominance of the two major parties, and a closely watched march of thousands of unemployed workers on Washington D.C., created the boundary line between the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century and the Progressive Era of the early twentieth.
While labor was clearly the loser of the Pullman Strike and most unions suffered membership losses due to the depression, the trajectory of American labor organization and power still pointed forward and upward. With the end of the depression, unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) resumed their growth. Between 1897 and 1904, the AFL grew from 447,000 to 2.1 million members. By 1903, Chicago’s unions had organized 350,000 members, representing almost 50 percent of the city’s workforce.
Nonetheless, the defeat at Pullman portended an extended period of exclusion of labor organizations from the bastions of corporate-run, large-scale industry. AFL unions hunkered down in industries characterized by large numbers of small employers using less advanced, smaller-scale production methods. After 1904, national employers and their associations picked up the weapon of the labor injunction used so effectively against the boycott of the American Railway Union (ARU) and set labor back on its heels for more than a decade.
The devastating defeat of the ARU was also a setback for a type of unionism—industrial unionism--that enrolled all workers employed by an industry, regardless of their craft or skill level. Though industrial unions, such as the United Mine Workers flourished, the vast majority of AFL unions remained occupational or craft unions like the railroad brotherhoods. But, the defeat of industrial unionism did not prevent the organization of the new groups of workers. By the turn of the century, most craft unions began organizing workers outside their craft, many of them less skilled laborers. By 1915, only 28 of 135 unions active in the labor movement could still be classified as craft unions. Historians have coined the term “craft-industrial” unions to describe these new unions that dominated the Progressive Era.
The rise of large business corporations, the widespread use of the labor injunction against strikes and boycotts, and the inability of labor to organize in corporate-run industry led many workers and their middle class allies to turn to socialism. Here, too, the events of the Pullman Strike prophesied the future. Following his incarceration for violating a court injunction, Eugene V. Debs spent six months in prison and began to investigate the possibilities of socialism. After avowing himself a socialist in 1897, he emerged as the leading spokesperson for the Socialist Party of America during the first two decades of the twentieth century and served five times as its presidential candidate.
The turn of many Americans toward socialism was part of a larger transformation going on in American liberalism. According to nineteenth century liberal doctrine, Americans could trust individual liberty and free competition in the market to secure the public good. The corollary to this public faith was that government should remain severely limited and relegated to protecting and extending the market and providing individuals with the resources—usually land and education—necessary for property ownership. But, the advent of industrial capitalism turned the majority of Americans working outside the household into non-propertied wageworkers. At the same time, individually-owned businesses gave way to trusts and large, consolidated business corporations.
Especially after the great merger wave of 1897-1904, the new managers of these corporations began to replace the market’s “invisible hand” with the corporation’s “visible hand.” Corporate bureaucracies regulated their firms’ investment, production, and pricing policies; and the demand for its products and services. Like Pullman, many of these managers targeted the middle class consumers’ taste for luxury and quality and thus pioneered a new consumer culture. Also like Pullman, many implemented corporate welfare programs for their workers to promote loyalty, though few tried to control their workers’ lives to the extent that Pullman had done.
In law and government Americans began to accept the efficacy and benevolence of a corporate-dominated economy and society. During the Progressive Era, they amended the Sherman Act and set up government commissions to regulate the behavior of corporations rather than seeking to break them up and return to the outdated competitive economy. Building on this new trend, labor leaders contended that they had the same right to organize and regulate the labor market as the corporations did the product markets. The Pullman Strike was an important turning point in this regard. President Cleveland’s Strike Commission issued a report four months after the strike that rejected “the theory that competition would amply protect shippers as to rates, etc. and employees as to wages and other conditions.” It endorsed collective bargaining, though its full realization would await the New Deal. Even Richard Olney, the U.S. Attorney General who had asked for the injunction that defeated the boycott, had a change of heart. He sponsored the Erdman Act passed by Congress in 1898 that outlawed yellow-dog contracts requiring workers to renounce unions as a condition of employment, recognized the railroad brotherhoods for purposes of collective bargaining, and inaugurated a long era of government intervention on behalf of labor peace on the railroads. In 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt faced another national strike that affected interstate commerce, he didn’t dispatch troops; instead he set up an arbitration commission.
In this new era it was far more difficult to sustain an older paternalism in which white male wielders of property like Pullman could be trusted to stand in judgment of the interests of those under them. Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, who had been rebuffed in her effort to mediate the strike, wrote an essay shortly after its defeat in which she compared Pullman to Shakespeare’s King Lear and his embattled workers to Lear’s daughter, Cordelia. To Addams, the labor movement represented the ‘social claim”—the principles of human sympathy and the public good—that Pullman’s paternalism distorted and denied in the interest of private profit. Addams argued not for the victory of the labor over capital, but rather for a broadened public interest that included the two sides.
There was an unmistakable implication of Addams’s article that most observers of the Pullman strike missed. The same rejection of an autocratic paternalism that the public increasingly accepted on behalf of workers should be accorded to daughters and wives within the patriarchal family. Thus, for Addams, the counterpart of the labor movement was the autonomous woman. Leading magazines rejected a “ Modern Lear” and it took until 1912 for Addams to publish the article. By then, a less well understood legacy of the Pullman strike—the political activism of women outside the bounds of the family—was already playing a leading role in Progressive reform.
- Jane Addams, “A Modern Lear.” The Survey, 29 (November 2, 1912): 131-137. Available online: http://douglassarchives.org/adda_a01.htm
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