Populism, an agrarian backlash against industrialism, fed on the economic problems of the era and created new urgency in labor activism. Toward the end of the Harrison administration, growing labor discontent led to several strikes, including a violent steel strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in July of 1892. Cleveland inherited the challenge of maintaining peace in a time when the patience and endurance of both labor and management were under severe strain. His leadership was especially tested during the Pullman Strike of 1894.
Financial crisis and severe economic depression, known in short as the Panic of 1893, placed hardship on industries that already faced significant problems over the last two decades.
The Pullman Palace Car Company, which serviced the railroad industry, cut wages by nearly one fourth. Employees who lived in the company-controlled town of Pullman, outside of Chicago, found that rent and other expenses did not decrease in relation to incomes, however, so families spent the same although they earned far less than they had earlier.
Members of the American Railway Union in Pullman went on strike in Pullman on May 11, 1894, to protest the situation. The company president, George M. Pullman, refused to discuss the matter or seek arbitration of the dispute.
In response to Pullman’s unwillingness to compromise, the union’s national council president, Eugene V. Debs, called for a national boycott of Pullman cars. The spark ignited a wildfire: soon sympathy strikes broke out in twenty-seven different U.S. states and territories. Chicago in particular became the center of unprecedented violent demonstrations.
Despite the bloodshed, the governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld, refused to call the militia to impose order, because he was sympathetic to the strikers and the difficulties they faced. The U.S. attorney general, Richard Olney, had no such qualms.
He secured an injunction against the strikers for impeding mail service and interstate commerce through their actions. Cleveland backed this with force, ordering 2,500 federal troops to Chicago on July 4 despite Governor Altgeld’s wishes. Within a week the strike ended and by July 20, Cleveland felt satisfied that order was restored and withdrew the troops. Union national president Debs was convicted of contempt of court and conspiring against interstate commerce, proving that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act could be used against union officials and activity as well as industry leaders and practices.
Debs continued to pen letters and treatises from prison, arguing on behalf of labor concerns and attacking the decision to turn U.S. troops against strikers. Cleveland, however, was satisfied that he had done the right thing by ending violence and putting down the “riotous mob.”
Debs viewed the workers as the victims of management’s greed and the economy’s downturn; Cleveland saw the bystanding people of Chicago who encountered the violence created by the strike situation as the innocents. If Cleveland’s hard money, pro-gold standard position already suggested to populists that he sympathized with business over labor, the president’s actions regarding the Pullman Strike confirmed this assessment. Cleveland’s choice earned the gratitude of industry leaders but severed any final links he might have had with labor.
Economists, ministers and other shapers of public opinion joined in the hue and cry against the strikers, their union and its president, Eugene Debs. They called openly for force and violence against the strikers, quoting approvingly Napolean Bonaparte’s statement: “Shooting down one at the right time is saving the lives of tens of thousands in the future.” Said Dr. Herrick Johnson, professor at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago. “The soldiers must use their guns. They must shoot to kill.”
The soldiers did use their guns and they did shoot to kill–25 workers were killed and 60 badly injured–yet the strike remained unbroken. Thus the Associated Press reported: “Despite the presence of United States troops and the mobilization of five regiments of state militia; despite threats of martial law and bullet and bayonet, the great strike inaugurated by the American Railway Union holds three-fourths of the roads running out of Chicago in its strong fetters, and last night traffic was more fully paralyzed than at any time since the inception of the tie-up.”
The intervention of federal troops did not halt the spread of the strike; “Troops cannot move trains,” Debs wired the striking locals. Nor did the sabotage of the strike by the officials of the railroad brotherhoods. The Pullman strike was broken, not by the U.S. troops, not by the opposition of the leadership of the brotherhoods, but by the action taken by the federal courts.
The sweeping injunction made “the very command” of the union leaders “to their striking men . . . an open defiance of the courts.” As a result of the injunction, it became literally impossible for the strike leaders, centered in Chicago, to coordinate the striking groups scattered from Michigan to California. When the leadership of the strikers even urged workers to join the struggle, they were cited for contempt and arrested. Moreover, throughout the country, grand juries, hastily impaneled by the government, indicted hundreds of strikers and their leaders for conspiracy.
On July 10, the federal grand jury at Chicago returned indictments against the officers of the union, charging them with complicity in obstructing the mails and hindering interstate commerce. Debs and his fellow officers were arrested on the same day and were released on bail. While Debs and his associates were in the custody of the court, the union headquarters were raided and ransacked by a squad of deputy marshals and deputy postoffice inspectors.
With the strike leaders removed from the scene of action, the strike headquarters in Chicago ransacked and abandoned, with all contact among the various local organizations of the union cut off, with the newspapers printing false reports of a sweeping back-to-work movement, it is not surprising that most of the strikers became confused and uncertain as how to act. Frantic telegrams poured into the strike headquarters in Chicago, but there was no one there to reply. Small wonder that demoralization spread rapidly among the strikers.
Although some workers, especially in Chicago, wrested gains from their employers during the great labor upheaval accompanying the Pullman strike, all of organized labor, along with the A.R.U. suffered an overwhelming defeat. Nevertheless, many American workers gained rich experience and more valuable lessons from the struggle about “the underlying wrongs of modern society than all the lectures and publications could secure in a decade.”
Many workers now saw clearly that the government was the tool of corporate interests, a conviction that wasto intensify the feeling for independent political action in labor circles.They also saw that only through powerfully organized unions and the utmost of solidarity could labor effectively challenge the might of corporate monopolies. As Debs pointed out in a letter to American workers, from Woodstock jail: “The recent upheaval has demonstrated the necessity for the solidarity of labor. Divided and cross purposes, labor becomes the sport and prey of its exploiters, but united, harmonious and intelligently directed it rules the world.”
Yet there were elements in the labor movement who drew precisely the opposite conclusion from the “recent upheaval.” Many craft union leaders of the A. F. of L. and the railroad brotherhoods saw in the defeat of the strike a justification of their own conservative policies. The ferocity with which the corporate monopolies, the government, and the judiciary struck back at the railroad workers convinced these craft union leaders that any attempt to build trade unions along the lines of the A.R.U.-the lines of industrial unionism–would bring forth similar opposition from this alliance of big business and the government.
The only type of unionism that would be tolerated was a unionism which did not seriously threaten the absolute control of the corporate monopolies over the economic and political machinery. To attempt to unite the workers into powerful industrial unions, the craft union leaders argued, was to court the destruction of the existing labor organizations and to doom the trade unions to the fate of the A.R.U.
The essence of this trade union strategy can be stated simply: Labor must never seriously challenge big business and the government. Avoid head-on collisions with big corporations and with government. Team up with these industrialists and politicians who seem inclined toward a live-and-let-live policy with the craft unions. Make peace with the employers on certain terms which would keep the craft unions alive even if this meant increased victimization of the unskilled and semiskilled workers. This policy was soon institutionalized in the National Civic Federation.
The progressive forces in the labor movement challenged the conclusions the conservative, craft union leaders drew from the Pullman strike. Had all organized labor been united and active in the support of the strikers from the beginning of the boycott, they argued, had it sought militantly to keep the courts and the federal government from entering the dispute, had it tried to restrain the strikebreaking activities of the leaders of the brotherhoods, the final outcome might have been different. At any rate, the lesson of the Pullman strike, as Debs so cogently pointed out, was the crying need for greater not less unity and solidarity in labors’ ranks.
From 1894 on the progressive forces in the American labor movement strove diligently to apply this lesson. The odds against them were great. The corporate monopolies fought tooth and nail to prevent the rise of a labor movement that would unite all of labor in struggle against its exploiters. The monopolists had the ready assistance of the leaders of the craft unions, the press, large sections of the clergy, and, of course, the government, local, state, and federal. But the progressive forces persisted, keeping alive the policy pioneered by the A.R.U.–the policy of working class solidarity and for a new organizational form that led toward industrial unionism.
In 1905, a delegate to the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World characterized the great Pullman Strike as “a battle that in spite of the fact that it apparently ended in Woodstock jail, is not ended yet, but is going on today.” That battle continued until the cause for which so many workers had sacrificed in 1894 was crowned with success.
The ultimate victory, it is significant to note, was predicted in the course of the great strike itself; indeed, at the very point when it appeared almost certain that labor’s struggle was lost. On a large canvas strip, prominently displayed in Cooper Union Hall, New York City, on the evening of July 12, 1894, where a mass meeting of workers in support of the Pullman strikers was being held, was the following legend:
They hanged and quartered John Ball
But Feudalism passed away.
They hanged John Brown, but Chattel
They arrested Eugene Debs, and may kill him,
but White Slaverywill pass away.
Such souls go marching on.
The strike was marked by the precipitate use of Federal troops, which led to rioting, property destruction, and a long casualty list. The strike was reported by conservative journals as an anarchist plot designed to destroy the nation. By “suppressing such a black-mailing conspiracy as the boycott of the Pullman cars by the American Railway Union,” asserted the New York Herald, “the nation is fighting for its own existence just as truly as in suppressing the great rebellion.”
Typical of the Pullman Strike, as of other struggles, was the liberal-conservative split. William H. Garwardine, a pastor who had ministered to the strikers, warned that “we as a nation are dividing ourselves, like ancient Rome into two classes, the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed.” Unless the government enforced justice he predicted, the nation would not ‘”prosper . . . [nor] long perpetuate itself and its institutions.” Those who supported, as well as those who despised, labor thought the events of the Nineties were pushing the republic to the brink of chaos, but reformers blamed class oppression rather than radicalism and proposed to do away with poverty rather than to discipline it.
Despite all these forebodings, the dismal future never dawned. The workers and farmers did not rise, and the lives and property of the middle class were never touched. If Americans had not been misled by their own fears, they would perhaps have realized that these conflicts, though violent, would never be revolutionary. The industrial armies, the workers, and the Populists did not want to destroy the system; they simply wanted to secure a place within it or at least to change it back to what it had been in 1860. The strikes were defensive, aimed at very practical ends like preventing wage cuts.
They were not the class-conscious assaults imagined by the left and feared by the bourgeoisie. Populism took its menacing tone, not from radical aims like nationalizing wealth, but from outraged conservatism. A stubborn clinging to the past, an attempt to regain lost virtues–these forces lay behind the agrarian crusades’ embittered idealism. Too often, in their fear, people accepted the slogans of socialists, unions, and Populists as accurate descriptions of reality. They mistook programs for philosophies, and what they saw as the death throes of our civilization were really its growth pangs.