The Pullman Strike of 1894

Deputies endeavor to operate a train engine during the great Pullman Strike of 1894. (Library of Congress.)
Deputies endeavor to operate a train engine during the great Pullman Strike of 1894. (Library of Congress.)
Fig. 1 George Mortimer Pullman | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

George Mortimer Pullman was an engineer and ambitious entrepreneur. He found success as a building contractor. In 1867, Pullman created a new line of luxury railroad cars featuring comfortable seating, restaurants, and improved sleeping areas known as Pullman coaches. Following his success in 1867, he built a town on a four thousand acre piece of land. There, twenty-seven years after his initial success, one of the most dramatic events in United States labor history took place: the Pullman Strike.

In 1880, near Lake Calumet on the southwest edge of Chicago, the village of Pullman was built. His town contained a hotel, a school, a library, a church, and office buildings, as well as parks and recreational facilities. Pullman also built houses with indoor plumbing and gas heating. He managed his town as he did his other businesses; he leased the housing to his workers.

Many factors contributed to the economic downturn of 1893. The nation’s gold reserves dropped drastically, federal spending depleted U.S. Treasury surpluses, and finally the passage in 1890 of the Sherman Silver Act culminated in the financial panic of 1893. 1 All of these events unleashed a domino effect on the American economy. Corporations failed, resulting in mass layoffs. Many banks also closed, unable to keep afloat during this chaotic time. Combined, all of these closures and general uncertainly plunged the country into a major economic depression. Pullman’s response to the crisis was to fire more than a third of his workforce; he instituted reduced hours and cut the wages for the remaining hourly employees by more than twenty-five percent. Because Pullman had promised the town’s investors a six percent return, there was no corresponding reduction in the rents and other charges paid by the workers. Rent was deducted directly from their paychecks, leaving many workers with no money to feed and clothe their families.2

In desperation, many of Pullman’s workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU). Eugene V. Debs was the organizer of the ARU and well known for a strike against the Great Northern Railway company. In May of 1894, Pullman workers went on strike. Workers agreed to permit trains carrying the U.S mail to operate as long as they did not contain Pullman cars. Railroads refused to participate. Despite Debs’ opposition, an ARU convention voted to stop handling Pullman cars after the company ignored efforts to settle the dispute. The union, by detaching Pullman cars from the trains, sought to deplete the revenues of the Pullman Palace Car Company (PPCC) and force negotiations.3 George Pullman refused to negotiate. As the strike proceeded, rail lines were shut down and the railroads formed the General Managers Association (GMA), an organization of twenty-four railroad companies operating in or through Chicago. The railroads were determined to honor their contracts with the PPCC, insisting that trains run with Pullman cars attached. Alarmed at the rapid growth of the ARU, they were eager for a chance to crush it.4

Fig.2 U.S. troops protecting a train during the railroads workers strike. (Library of Congress)
Fig.2 U.S. troops protecting a train during the railroads workers strike | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The ARU responded with a union walkout, and fifty thousand railroad workers walked off from their jobs. When striking workers refused to spread out and end the strike, U.S. attorney general Richard Olney, who supported the GMA, obtained an order holding the workers in contempt, declaring the strike illegal. Richard Olney requested federal troops, saying they were needed to move the mail, and President Grover Cleveland sent more than two thousand troops to Chicago. Rioting and fighting broke out between the troops and the strikers. Many strikers were killed and wounded by the troops. Debs was arrested and charged for disobeying the court order and for conspiracy to obstruct the U.S. mail. Debs spent six months in prison. Many workers returning to their jobs found out that they had been permanently replaced and blacklisted from future railroad work.

The failure of the strike was a major defeat for labor unions in the United States. The ARU fought for what they believed was right as labor workers, but with the unfortunate disagreement, and the undesirable fight against business management, and no agreement between both ARU and GMA, the strike came to an end by the federal government.5 Clearly, the Pullman Strike of 1894 was not only a defeat for American labor, but it had a significant impact on the life and welfare of American workers for decades. One legacy of this event, however, was the federal government’s decision to declare a national holiday, known as Labor Day, six days after the end of the strike.


  1. Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, April 2016, s.v. “Sherman Silver Purchase Act.”
  2. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Pullman Strike,” by Merl E Reed and Irwin Halfond.
  3. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Pullman Strike,” by Merl E Reed and Irwin Halfond.
  4. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Pullman Strike,” by Merl E Reed and Irwin Halfond.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January 2015, s.v. “Pullman Strike,” by Merl E Reed and Irwin Halfond.

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This Post Has 38 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Mariana Govea

    Well written article as well as researched! I enjoy reading articles about people who were courageous enough to stand up to injustices and for what they believed was the right thing to do!I did not know about the Pullman strike until I read your article which really informative and told me everything that I needed to know!Its nice to know that thanks to these wonderful men who fought for fair pay we now have an extra day off that we all take for granted, I always thought it was just a day to honor everyone who worked but I never knew the story behind it!!

  2. Avatar
    Cameron Mays

    This article seemed well-researched and it’s pretty obvious you can write pretty good articles. However, it seemed like you rushed the article out and didn’t include various details that could have made your article even better. Furthermore, I’ve never been a fan of starting an article with any sort of quote, especially one as long as the one you chose. It would have been better for for to tell us something interesting to get us hooked on your article. It is yours after all. Besides those few things your article was quite good.

  3. Avatar
    Sergio Cervantes

    This was a well written article! I always enjoy reading about people who stood up against injustices. It is also interesting to see how one man was able to build a “working” town with his wealth. It reminds me of the craziness of post-civil war America and how it affected so many citizens. It was sad to read how the strike ended with the imprisonment of organizers and firing of hundreds of railroad workers. But, at least the United States was able to replace that by dedicating a day to the labor workforce.

  4. Avatar
    Mario De Leon

    I have never heard of George Mortimer Pullman but the introduction to this article gave a good description of him. It is an interesting idea that Pullman had, to build a town and lease the housing to his workers. Upon reading the article I expected the strike to be a success but it is unfortunate the strike was a defeat not only for the American labor but also also had a major impact on the American working man for years.

  5. Avatar
    Nahim Rancharan

    Amazing Article! I was convinced that the article was completely based upon the Pullman Strike of 1894, but I had no idea that it was one of the key factors that led to the establishment of labor day. In addition, this article effectively both sides of the Pullman Strike. Although it had a great, negative impact on the struggles of labor unions within America as well as the efforts of the general public, it also showed how Pullman originally had worked with his workers with the establishment of the community, until the disastrous effects of the decline in the economy. This article does a great job at narrating a forgotten story in American history. Good Work.

  6. Avatar
    Marissa Gonzalez

    I had no idea that six days after the Pullman strike that Labor Day was declared as a national holiday! This is very interesting but unfortunate that people still fought for what was right such as the American Railway Union being against the General Managers Association. It is crazy to think that events such as the Pullman strike can still make an impact on America’s future since we have Labor Day as a national holiday. I am sure the majority of the population do not even know the purpose of this holiday and just enjoy the day off. This is why it is important to know American history and the background of events.

  7. Avatar
    Faisal Alqarni

    This story to me it represent the common story fight of the strong vs. the weak with the American Railway Union (ARU) been against the General Managers Association (GMA). From this article of yours it is clear to see that the Pullman workers were suffering but those who headed the GMA finally made the strike a kind of power struggling and the government supported the wealthy over the poor. Thank you for this and also for the citation of your sources which I think makes your work more believable.

  8. Avatar
    Johnanthony Hernandez

    Great article and an simple to follow flow of writing. I did not know this is what led to Labor Day becoming a national holiday nor did I know there was a strike this size in Chicago’s history. I can only imagine how the workers must of felt and I can understand their frustration and anger as their wages were cut. I can understand where Pullman was coming from even if I don’t agree with the way he handled the matter, as a business owner he was looking out for the best of his company and for the railroad system.

  9. Avatar
    Tina Valdez

    I thought your article had a great flow! The factors that fed into the economic downturn certainly did result in a domino effect, I though you did an excellent job of depicting that. This was one tough fight and a devastating failure given the tension that had arisen. I did not know that this event had relation to our Labor Day national holiday. Very well written article, well done!

  10. Avatar
    Mariana Sandoval

    Your closing paragraph wonderfully wrapped up your article. I think it’s important to give historical events some sort of contemporary relevance to show people that history does matter. Most people don’t know the history behind Labor Day and I’m glad you chose to shed light on that.

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