Ground zero of the American labor movement — the reason you’re off work on this Monday and why your kids will be in school next week instead of working in a sweatshop — can be found in Chicago on 111th Street just east of Cottage Grove Avenue.
The former Pullman Railroad Car Co., factory and administration building sits at 111th and Cottage. An 1894 wage strike at the facility became a national workers’ movement that halted trains across the country.
U.S. troops, police and the courts were called in to crush the strike, and American Railway Union President Eugene V. Debs, who represented the strikers, was thrown in jail.
But the seeds planted on Chicago’s South Side by the Pullman strikers and Debs would bear fruit for working people in the century to come and to this day, including a living wage, an eight-hour workday and safer working conditions.
We think that’s worth keeping in mind on this Labor Day. Especially as workers’ rights and wages seem to be threatened almost daily, often in ways that would’ve made turn-of-the-last-century oligarchs and business titans green with envy.
A workers’ utopia — then a strike
Railroad car manufacturer George M. Pullman erected his factory and administration building in 1881 as the centerpiece of a 4,000-acre self-contained town entirely built and owned by his company.
It’s a well-told story that the town of Pullman, with its hierarchy of handsome brick residences and paved, landscaped streets, represented the height of Victorian-era city planning and architecture — a contrast to the slums and shantytowns that sometimes sprung up around large factories as affordable places for workers to live.
But George Pullman’s paternalism came at a cost.
When an economic depression hit the country in 1893, Pullman cut wages at the factory by 25% but refused to lower rents in his worker town. He also refused to reduce the dividend his company paid to stockholders, even as he cut the factory’s workforce — people lost jobs — and required other employees to work longer hours.
This led to a scene right out of Dickens. On payday, a Pullman pay boss who delivered checks to the town’s residents was paired with a rent collector. Workers often signed their checks back over to the Pullman Company within moments of receiving it.
“As a result, many workers and their families faced starvation,” Melvin I. Urofsky, professor of law and public policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes in a Britannica Online essay on the Pullman strike. “When a delegation of workers tried to present their grievances about low wages, poor living conditions and 16-hour workdays directly to . . . George M. Pullman, he refused to meet with them and ordered them fired.”
Feeling the squeezed, the 18,000 Pullman workers here and in other locales walked off the job in 1894. More than 200,000 other railway workers across the country joined the cause, bringing trains across much of the country to a halt.
The strikers frequently turned violent, though Debs cautioned them to remain peaceful.
In the short run, the Pullman Strike was seen as a blow against the fledgling labor movement, with the federal government using a court injunction to compel workers to return to their jobs. But in time, the strike led to greater legal protections for organized labor while helping the union movement gain traction nationally.
And the porters who provided hotel-class service to passengers on Pullman train cars formed the country’s first Black-led labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in 1925.
During much of the 20th century, the stronger unions went on to win wage increases, job protections, health insurance, pensions and other basic benefits that greatly strengthened the American working class and expanded the middle class. A steelworker could send his kids to college. A pipefitter could get Saturdays off. A truck driver could retire with dignity.
A factory reborn
In 1898, one year after George Pullman died, the Illinois Supreme court ordered the Pullman Company to sell off its town, allowing workers to buy their homes. The town became a visually striking Chicago neighborhood of privately owned residences. The company, which became Pullman-Standard, closed the factory in 1958.
But the Pullman factory reopened this Labor Day weekend. Restored and reprogrammed, the stately structure has been converted into a visitors center operated by the U.S. National Park Service, devoted to telling all aspects of the Pullman community’s history, including its seminal importance to the American labor movement.
The separately operated National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, located in Pullman at 10406 S. Maryland Ave., will be open and active this weekend as well.
Both places are well worth a visit.
The story of Pullman serves as a reminder of how far working people have come in this country, how hard they have had to fight to get where they are, and all our nation stands to lose if those gains are lost or eroded.
It serves to remind us that the fight goes on.
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