Founded by George Pullman, his company manufactured railroad cars in the mid to late 1800s through the early decades of the 20th century, during the boom of railroads in the United States. Pullman developed the sleeping car which carried his name into the 1980s. The labor union associated with the company, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was one of the most powerful African-American political entities of the 20th century.
During the economic panic of 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company cut wages as demands for their train cars plummeted and the company’s revenue dropped. Things escalated into a strike when workers continued to complain and owner, George Pullman refused to talk to them. Many of the workers were already members of the American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene V. Debs, which supported their strike by launching a boycott in which union members refused to run trains containing Pullman cars. The strike effectively shut down production in the Pullman factories and led to a lockout. Railroad workers across the nation refused to switch Pullman cars onto trains. The ARU declared that if switchmen were disciplined for the boycott, the entire ARU would strike in sympathy.
The boycott was launched on June 26, 1894. Within four days, 125,000 workers on twenty-nine railroads had quit work rather than handle Pullman cars. Adding fuel to the fire the railroad companies began hiring replacement workers which only increased hostilities. Many African Americans, fearful that the racism expressed by the American Railway Union would lock them out of another labor market, crossed the picket line to break the strike; that added a racially charged tone to the conflict.
On June 29, 1894, Debs hosted a peaceful gathering to obtain support for the strike from fellow railroad workers at Blue Island, Illinois. Afterward groups within the crowd became enraged and set fire to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive. Elsewhere in the United States, sympathy strikers prevented transportation of goods by walking off the job, obstructing railroad tracks or threatening and attacking strikebreakers. This increased national attention to the matter and fueled the demand for federal action.
The strike was broken up by United States Marshals and some 12,000 United States Army troops, commanded by Nelson Miles, sent in by President Grover Cleveland on the premise that the strike interfered with the delivery of U.S. Mail, ignored a federal injunction and represented a threat to public safety. The arrival of the military led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 13 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 rail workers did $340,000 worth of property damage.
A national commission formed to study causes of the 1894 strike found Pullman’s paternalism partly to blame and Pullman’s company town to be “un-American.” In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court forced the Pullman Company to divest ownership in the town, which was annexed to Chicago.
Pullman thereafter remained unpopular with labor, and when he died in 1897, he was buried in Graceland Cemetery at night in a lead-lined coffin within an elaborately reinforced steel-and-concrete vault. Several tons of cement were poured to prevent his body from being exhumed and desecrated by labor activists.
In the aftermath of the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the US military and US Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland put reconciliation with Labor as a top political priority. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.