Jack Kelly is a prolific journalist, novelist and historian. In his latest book, “The Edge of Anarchy” (St. Martin’s Press, $28.99), he details the greatest uprising of working people in American history. Today, it’s an historic event that’s been all but forgotten.
In 1894, the pinnacle of what’s often called the “Gilded Age,” a boycott of Pullman sleeping cars by thousands of railroad employees brought commerce to a standstill in much of the country. With farmers unable to ship their foodstuffs to market, famine threatened. Riots broke out along the rail lines, the U.S. Army was called in and soon gunfire rang out in the streets.
At the center of the titanic struggle stood two iconic figures — George Pullman and Eugene Debs.
Pullman made a fortune by developing sleeping and dining cars at a time when railroads dominated the nation’s landscape. He didn’t sell his cars to the railroads; he leased them, thus providing him a steady flow of cash. He used some of that money to build a model town near his factory outside Chicago. During the economic depression that began in 1893, he cut wages at his factory but continued to charge his workers exorbitant rents. They went on strike.
The Pullman employees were members of a new industry-wide union of rail workers called the American Railway Union, which had been started by Debs, The union’s members, who operated the nation’s railroads, resolved to stop handling Pullman cars until the company met its employees’ demands. Hoping to break the union, railroad mangers fired employees who wouldn’t handle the Pullman cars, leading to a shutdown that affected many rail lines. Food and fuel shortages soon followed.
Bernie Sanders has called Debs “the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.” The son of immigrants, Debs thought that unionized workers could be a match for the corporation. Although he cautioned the Pullman workers against a strike, he wholeheartedly supported them once they walked out. He served time in jail for leading the boycott. Later he became a leader of the Socialist Party and ran for president five times under the party’s banner.
The strike turned violent when many men, only some of them strikers, began burning boxcars and otherwise disrupting trains. Some claimed the perpetrators were provocateurs hired by the railroads.
It was U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney who said the rail strike had brought the country to the “ragged edge of anarchy.” Olney, who remained a director of a railroad company while serving as AG, convinced President Grover Cleveland to support the railroads in the dispute. Federal courts issued injunctions making even talk of a strike illegal.
Militia units and then federal troops moved into Chicago and other cities. As Kelly notes, their presence didn’t halt the violence but instead ramped it up. “Militiamen and U.S. Army soldiers killed several dozen people around the country.”
The arrest of scores of strikers for violating the injunctions, along with federal bullets and bayonets, brought an end to the strike and allowed the railroads to resume moving trains.
“The outcome of the strike was paradoxical,” Kelly concludes. “The railroad companies and Pullman got what they wanted — workers came back on the companies’ terms. Eugene Debs challenged the government’s power to make a strike illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled against him. ... But Pullman was vilified for his intransigence, while Debs was lionized. A federal commission laid most of the blame for the turmoil on Pullman and the rail companies. Legislation a few years later gave railroad workers the right to unionize and speeded the introduction of safer working conditions and the arbitration of disputes.”