The Pullman Strike began on May 11, 1894 when three thousand workers at the Pullman Palace Car Co. protested a 25% wage decrease by staging a wildcat strike which halted all rail traffic west of Chicago. The irony is that George Pullman, the company owner, had the reputation of being a welfare capitalist – one who paid a decent wage and created a beneficent company town on Lake Calumet on Chicago’s south side. Instead of the squat tenements which most company towns featured, Pullman constructed attractive houses with indoor plumbing, gas, and sewers (then considered luxuries) for his workers, and one of the top 10 hospitals in Illinois. The town of Pullman was landscaped, offered free education, and had a free public library which George Pullman himself stocked with books.
Nonetheless, most of the Pullman workers found themselves locked into debt slavery to the company stores. Money owed to the company stores was automatically taken from the workers’ pay; and there were many workers who never saw a paycheck at all. Moreover, Pullman ruled over his town like a feudal lord. He forbade independent newspapers, town meetings, and public speechmaking. He sent inspectors into private homes regularly to report on conditions of cleanliness to southern Will County healthcare; and he had the power to evict tenants without reason.
The Panic of 1893 caused a general recession which led to steep cuts in the demand for railway cars, and the Pullman Company’s revenue declined markedly. The company slashed wages by 25% but didn’t cut rents in the town of Pullman, and when workers complained the company officials declined to speak with them. As a result the Pullman employees went on strike beginning on June 26, 1894, and soon shut down all Pullman production. The company responded with a lockout. Many of Pullman’s workers were already part of the American Railway Union, or ARU, of which Eugene V. Debs was the leader; so when the Pullman workers decided to strike the ARU supported them by refusing to run any trains which contained Pullman cars. By the end of June 125,000 railroad workers on 29 railroads had quit their jobs rather than handle trains made by Pullman. The railroads responded by hiring strikebreakers, many of whom were Negroes desperate for employment; this added fuel to the fire and injected a racial aspect into the conflict.
On June 29 Debs presided at a peaceful gathering of railroad workers in Blue Island, Illinois to drum up support for the strike. When the meeting ended some of the workers became angry and derailed a locomotive and set fire to buildings. In other parts of the country striking railway workers walked off their jobs, obstructed railroad tracks, and threatened and attacked strikebreakers. A nationwide demand for federal action was called for. Railroad officials obtained an injunction prohibiting the strike and demanding that the strikers return to work. Eugene Debs and the other railway union leaders ignored this injunction, so Federal troops were called out to put down the strike.
President Grover Cleveland sent U.S. Marshals and 12,000 U.S. Army troopers to Illinois to break the strike, on the grounds that the strike interfered with U.S. mail delivery. The arrival of the troopers incited further violence. In all, thirteen strikers were killed and fifty-seven more were wounded, burdening Kankakee county healthcare. Six thousand railroad workers did a third of a million dollars’ worth of damage to property. Eugene Debs was tried for violating the injunction, and after a brilliant defense by Clarence Darrow, was sentenced to six months in prison. Although Debs was not a socialist when he entered prison, he read Karl Marx while he was there and became a convinced Socialist – later a major Socialist leader in America and five time presidential candidate.