A labor leader goes to prison for leading a landmark strike

1/12/2021 cbw

By Dr. Jacob Friefeld

On January 9, 1895, union leader, Eugene Debs began serving a sixth-month prison term for his involvement in the strike against the Pullman Palace Car company the previous year.

George Pullman founded his company in 1867 to create luxurious railroad sleeping cars. By the late 1870s, Pullman controlled the luxury train car industry, and he turned his attention to attracting the best workers to his company. He did this by planning the town of Pullman outside of Chicago near Lake Calumet.

Pullman “Countess” luxury train car built in 1893 for the World’s Fair in Chicago (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Living in Pullman, the workers rented brick houses and had access to parks, schools, and entertainment. Pullman envisioned the town as an ideal living environment for workers who wouldn’t be tempted by the vices of the city — including pro-labor activism. Pullman also expected that his town would generate him a six percent profit, as workers would be paying rents directly back to the company. The first residents moved into the town in 1881.

Just over a decade later, the situation began to deteriorate. Pullman decreased factory worker wages in 1894 while leaving rents in his town the same. The workers walked out, refusing to work until their grievances had been addressed. They appealed to the American Railway Union (ARU), headed by Eugene Debs, for help.

Debs had grown up in Indiana and worked on the railroad. This sparked his interest in working class issues and labor organization. Before the late nineteenth century, most workers’ unions were organized based on craft —  the particular skillset of the workers. Debs advocated for the organization of labor across entire industries. To this end, he formed the ARU in 1893 and helped win higher wages for Great Northern Railway workers in early 1894.

When the Pullman workers went on strike in May 1894, Debs answered their call for help. In a public speech reprinted in the June 13 Chicago Tribune, Debs denounced Pullman as equal to the devil:

"So devoutly has Pullman robbed the Pullman employees, so religiously has he cut down wages, so piously has he made his retainers economize to prolong starvation, so happily are the principles of Pullman blended with the policy of the proprietor of the lake of fire and brimstone that the biography of the one would do for the history of the other, and not a change of a letter or a punctuation mark would be required by the severest critic." 

The ARU announced that on June 26, its members across the railroad industry would stop working on trains that included Pullman cars.


Artist’s depiction of the 1894 Pullman train car boycott (ALPLM)

The strike paralyzed train traffic across the nation, and the strikers gained sympathy with Chicago media. However, a U.S. circuit court filed an injunction against the Pullman boycott in early July. With support of the courts, President Grover Cleveland used the regular army to break the strike. Debs was arrested and convicted for ignoring the injunction.

Eugene Debs decades later, outside prison gates in Atlanta in 1920 (ALPLM)

Debs remained active in the labor movement and politics after his release from prison. He supported William Jennings Bryan for President in 1896 and then ran for the presidency as a Socialist in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. The 1920 election took place while Debs was again in prison, this time for speaking out against the draft during World War I. Debs was an important voice for the American working class during a time when the rise of corporate capitalism diminished any one worker’s bargaining power.

Pullman passed away in 1897 — only three years after the strike. His successor was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln.

Also this month in Illinois history...

  • January 12, 1848: Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on the U.S. House floor criticizing the U.S.-Mexican War.
  • January 6, 1878: Writer Carl Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Ill.
  • January 26, 1986: The Chicago Bears shuffled to victory in Super Bowl XX.
  • January 13, 1999: Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls for the second time.
Jacob K. Friefeld is a research historian at the ALPLM.

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