The Pullman Strike and Boycott

By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

The origins, course, and outcome of the Pullman Boycott lay not just in the town of Pullman, but in the workplace conditions his workers faced, the era’s prevalent business practices, the impact of the depression of 1893-98, the rise of a unifying labor organization on the railroads, and the response of the federal judiciary. More broadly, the boycott embodied a clash between older and newer ideas of property and liberty giving impetus to a transformation of American liberal beliefs.

On the eve of the Pullman Boycott, American employers had begun to embrace new methods of supervising labor, particularly skilled workers, who were prone to greater independence than unskilled laborers. Instead of hiring skilled workers off the street, a practice that accepted the work customs and possible union proclivities of new hires, railroad and other industrial managers began to seize control of the workplace. They searched for ways to dilute and reduce the importance of skill, imposed new job protocols, standardized rules for hiring, firing, and promotions, and created job ladders—all in an attempt to reduce the power of skilled workers, cut operating costs, and create a more stable and tractable workforce. In short, they moved toward what historians call internal labor markets and scientific management.

Following a short-lived 1886 strike by his skilled workmen, Pullman began to adopt many of these approaches. By the time of the 1894 strike, the company had reorganized the woodworking departments to reduce the number of skilled workers and increase the number of unskilled. In other departments skills were broken up into more specialized ones. In most divisions Pullman ended inside contracting and replaced gang bosses with foremen. For most skilled workers, Pullman’s superintendents replaced day wages with piece rates, with the goal of increasing per capita production.

The recent changes reducing the independent standing of skilled workers became the basis of a set of grievances that helped instigate the strike. Workers complained that foremen adjusted piece-rates for each new job, thus creating unpredictability in expected monthly income. They also complained of favoritism, arbitrariness, and abusive conduct among foremen. To these standing grievances were added the actions of Pullman in response to the start of the 1893 national depression. Simply put, Pullman reduced his workers’ wages (in the form of piece-rates), but not the rents in their homes. But, there was a larger context to these wage reductions that involves an understanding of normal business practices in the late nineteenth century.

With the hothouse industrialization of the post-Civil War period, industrial firms were often compelled to cover their high fixed costs by recklessly competing with each other for market share. They engaged in ruinous price and wage cutting, which was known as “cutthroat competition.” These firms continued to invest and produce commodities even when the income returned did not cover their costs—what contemporaries called “overproduction.” Nowhere was this was more prevalent than in the economy’s leading industry, the railroads. In the 1880s, three-quarters of the nation’s steel production went into railroad building; and between 1877 and 1893 the nation’s rail network doubled. The unintended result--overbuilding, heavy indebtedness, widespread bankruptcies, and inflated stock prices--forced railroad managers into cutthroat competition and overproduction. Indeed, a failure in railroad financing precipitated the 1893-98 depression.

George Pullman responded to the depression much like many of his contemporaries. At first he cut back his workforce by three-quarters. But widespread layoffs threatened both profits and the paternalism on which his town had been founded. In 1894, he began taking contracts at a loss—overproduction. This enabled Pullman to rehire many workers, so that by April 1894, 68 percent of the old workforce was employed again. But the only way to compensate was by cutting piece-rates a drastic 28 percent on average. Moreover, because Pullman remained committed to a return on investment in the homes he had built for his workers, he refused to reduce the rents he charged, which were already higher than rents charged elsewhere. The resulting economic hardship was greatly exacerbated by the unpredictability in piece-rates and the grievances against particular foremen. To make matters worse, Pullman did not inform his men he was taking contracts at a loss, and this contributed to a loss of confidence in the company.

A different, less material grievance united Pullman’s workers and won them public sympathy. To many male workers the paternalism of Pullman had been tolerable only as long as they were able to sustain their own paternalism over their wives and children by bringing home a family wage. When wage cuts reduced these workers’ families to destitution and an object of public charity, Pullman had evidently abandoned both kinds of paternalism. The violation of their “manliness”—a Victorian-era moral code which connected manhood with the protection of women and children—made the Pullman workers’ cause a popular one in Chicago.

On May 7, a committee of workers met with company Vice-President Thomas Wickes to request a restoration in wages or a reduction in rents and an end to harassment by foremen. Three days later, three of the men who had attended the conference with Wickes were fired with no explanation. This gesture of apparent bad faith ended negotiations, and the strike was on.

Local leader Thomas Heathcoate explained the desperate self-assertion that underlay their action: “We do not know what the outcome will be, and in fact we do not care much. We do know that we are working for less wages than will maintain ourselves and families in the necessaries of life, and on that one proposition we absolutely refuse to work any longer.”

The Pullman workers who met with the company in early May had recently joined the nation’s largest labor organization. The American Railway Union (ARU) had been founded a year earlier by a thirty-eight year old, charismatic former official of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Eugene Victor Debs. The ARU was a response to the counterattack on the wages and working conditions of railroad workers by a coalition of railroad managers, the General Managers Association (GMA). Founded in 1886, the GMA set standard job classifications and wages, recruited strikebreakers, and equalized revenue losses that railroads faced as a result of strikes. Debs recognized that the union brotherhoods of the locomotive engineers, brakemen, firemen and other skilled railroad workers must cooperate among themselves and with the masses of unskilled railroad workers if they were to successfully counter the tactics of the GMA. After experimenting for several years with federations of brotherhoods, Debs created the ARU, an association of all workers employed by the railroads irrespective of their skill level or whether they worked in the repair shops, running trades, or freight depots. After winning a widely trumpeted victory over the Great Northern Pacific Railroad in 1893, dissatisfied Western railroad workers flocked to the new organization. When it held its first convention in Chicago in June 1894, it boasted 150,000 members, including about a third of the employees of George Pullman. The new managerial elite of the nation’s largest industry now faced a worthy adversary.

At the June convention of the ARU, Pullman strikers asked the ARU to declare a sympathy boycott of all trains carrying Pullman cars. Debs was cautious, viewing a boycott as risky for the new labor organization. But, Pullman refused to bargain, even at the urging of the Civic Federation of Chicago, a public interest coalition led by the city’s top citizens. Pullman was convinced he was defending an important principle: that private property was an inviolable natural right, unrestrained by social obligations. His intransigence left the delegates to the ARU convention little choice but to declare a boycott. The result was a battle to the finish between the Pullman Company and the GMA on the one hand, and the Pullman local and ARU on the other. The boycott was also the greatest instance in American history of sympathy action by one group of workers on behalf of another.

In one important respect, the strikers’ sympathy was flawed. Like many other white-led labor organizations of the time, the ARU and the Pullman local refused membership to Pullman’s two thousand African-American porters. It is possible that if these porters had struck with the rest of Pullman’s workers the union might have been able to shut down the company without the help of the ARU.

Despite the absence of the porters and the disappointing refusal of the railroad brotherhoods to support the boycott, the ARU was able to shut down rail traffic in twenty-seven states from Chicago to the west coast. In Chicago, the nation’s rail hub, strikers benefited from the support of Mayor John Hopkins. As a retail merchant, Hopkins had rented four stores in Pullman’s Arcade in the mid-1880s, but a falling-out made him a bitter enemy of Pullman. After being elected mayor in December 1893, Hopkins made the cause of the Pullman workers his own, allowed Chicago police to collect charity for them, and kept police from interfering in the strike while it remained peaceful. Indeed, support for the strikers was widespread in the city. Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, remembered returning to Chicago on July 9, to find “almost everyone on Halsted Street wearing a white ribbon, the emblem of the strikers' side.”

The strike also benefited from the neutrality of Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld elected in 1892 with strong labor support. Altgeld had pardoned three Haymarket anarchists (four others had been hanged in 1887) and issued an accompanying message in which he declared the trial in which they had been convicted an injustice. During the early part of the strike Altgeld refused to send militia to Chicago.

The GMA, however, was just as determined to crush the fledgling ARU before it was powerful enough to meet the railroad corporations on an equal footing. From the minutes of its secret meetings, it is clear that the GMA operated in harmony with the Pullman company’s objectives and was bent on bringing the federal government into the conflict. They had allies in Washington. President Grover Cleveland’s Attorney General Richard Olney, himself a former railroad attorney, viewed the strike as a test of the constitutional order threatened by anarchy and insurrection. As he put it, the strike had brought the nation “the ragged edge of anarchy.”

Olney appointed Edwin Walker, a GMA legal advisor, as a special U.S. attorney for Chicago. On July 1, after an instance of disorder in Blue Island, south of the city, Walker wired Olney that law and order had broken down in Chicago. The next day Olney applied for and received from the federal district court in Chicago a blanket injunction preventing ARU leaders from using any method, even peaceful persuasion, to convince railroad workers and sympathizers to respect the boycott.

The injunction rested on a major tenet of late nineteenth century jurisprudence that individuals had a fundamental legal right to liberty of contract in the market. Under the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which the court invoked, the federal government had the power to prevent combinations, trusts, or any unreasonable restraint on such a right in the realm of interstate commerce; and the courts deemed the ARU boycott a conspiracy in the service of such a restraint.1 On July 4, President Cleveland dispatched the first detachment of 10,000 federal troops to Chicago, despite the absence of more than episodic instances of violence and over the strong protests of Governor Altgeld, who declared that his state was quite able to deal with disorder on its own.

Labor and its supporters were outraged that the courts had used the Sherman Act against labor rather than against the trusts against whom Congress had intended. Based on the application of the Sherman Act by the courts in the first seven years of its existence, it appeared that combination was acceptable when it concerned business firms, but not among employees.

The injunction and the arrival of federal troops turned the tide of the strike. The largely peaceful conduct of the strike quickly degenerated into clashes between the strike’s working-class partisans and the federal troops, who were greatly resented. The forces of order were soon joined by the Illinois militia, which Gov. Altgeld belatedly sent to the city to intervene between Chicago citizens and the provocative bluecoats. Clashes were greatest when troops protected strikebreakers operating trains in defiance of the boycott. Altogether, state militia, federal marshals, and others killed thirteen people and seriously wounded 53 others. The injunction and the violence that attended its enforcement also turned public opinion, once supportive, against the boycott,

As early as July 5, Debs recognized the strike’s dire prospects and offered to call it off in return for arbitration, but Pullman would have none of it. The next day Debs turned to the rest of organized labor. Chicago’s trade unionists were outraged at the blatant partiality of the federal government and were disposed toward calling a citywide general strike. To avert this, top national union leaders, led by American Federation of Labor president, Samuel Gompers rushed to Chicago. Meeting at Briggs House on July 12, they counseled against any sympathy action that might embroil other unions in a conflict destined for defeat. About 25,000 Chicago unionists did strike for one day in sympathy, but the Pullman boycott was now doomed. Meanwhile, Debs and ARU leaders were arrested for violating the injunction.

The walkout remained strong in many Western railroad centers through the end of July. But given the injunction, the presence of troops in the strike’s center and in other locales as well, and the absence of support from public opinion or the rest of organized labor, the strike was effectively over by mid-July. On August 2, the ARU officially ended the boycott. The strike lingered in Pullman until September when two thousand Pullman strikers surrendered unconditionally. The railroads and the Pullman company rehired most strikers once they renounced the union; they blacklisted the strike’s leaders. America’s greatest strike had ended with a wimper.


  • Harry Barnard. Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld. Secaucus, New Jersey: Lyle Stuart, 1938.
  • Stanley Buder. Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
  • Rev. William H. Carwardine. The Pullman Strike. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1894.
  • Almont Lindsey. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.
  • Donald L. McMurray. “Labor Policies of the General Managers’ Association of Chicago, 1886-1894.” Journal of Economic History. Vol. 13 (Spring 1953): 160-78.
  • Nick Salvatore. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  • Richard Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.
  • Richard Schneirov, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore eds.. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Shelton Stromquist. A Generation of Boomers: The Pattern of Railroad Labor Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • United States Strike Commission. Report on the Chicago Strike of June-July 1894. 53rd Cong. 3rd sess. Sen. Exec. Doc. No. 4.. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1895.

1. IN RE DEBS, 158 U.S. 564 (1895)