The Pullman Strike

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Nov 27 07:28:26 MST 1999

Published by H-Labor at (November, 1999)

Richard Schneirov, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore, eds.  _The
Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics_.
The Working Class in American History Series.  Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1999.  258 pp.  Tables, photos, notes, and index.  $49.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-252-02447-8; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 0-252-06755-X.

Reviewed for H-Labor by Georg Leidenberger <glj at>,
Department of Urban Studies, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico

Confrontation, Capitulation and Conciliation: The Pullman Strike
and the Transition from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era

This a rich and diverse collection of essays on the decade of the Pullman
railroad strike.  Symptomatic of the flexible boundaries of the field of
labor history, the book unites two studies focusing on organized labor and
industrial relations with six essays exploring the strike's broader public
context, political ramifications, and intersection with the state.  The
1894 strike forms the hinge for all of these studies, but it is generally
placed in a broad comparative or temporal context.

Two essays focus on trade union strategies.  Robert Weir offers a detailed
analysis of the New York Central Strike of 1890, which he considers a
"dress rehearsal" to the upheaval of 1894.  Internal divisions among the
labor movement, Weir argues, proved most responsible for the disastrous
outcome of both strikes, as the exclusive and cautious railroad
brotherhoods refused to back the industrially-based Knights of Labor and
American Railway Union (ARU), respectively.  Solidly mobilized employer
associations, well-financed and obstinate to public calls for arbitration,
proved too formidable an opponent for organized labor.  Like Weir, Susan
Hirsch places the strike in comparative perspective.  Contrasting the
failed Pullman walkout with a successful railroad strike in 1922, Hirsch
contends that only when workers' national identity outweighed their
communal roots could they wage successful nation-wide battles.  The
Delaware Pullman shops, the company's only branch east of Chicago, serve
as the author's test case.  Here, workers in 1894 were too imbedded in an
elite-dominated community to be willing to back the ARU's call for a
boycott.  By 1922, Delaware workers held firm roots in a national
trade-union movement and joined the strike, despite a continued
conservative local environment.  Several decades of steady government
intervention in the railroad industry, Hirsch contends, help explain this
change of consciousness among East Coast workers.  This is an interesting,
if somewhat mechanical, explanation for the failure of the Pullman boycott
to extend to the Eastern U.S.

Given the magnitude and timing (at the eve of the Progressive Era) of the
Pullman strike, it is not surprising that this collection places the
greatest emphasis on public perceptions and reactions to the dispute and
the larger social crisis it epitomized.  In an excellent article, Janice
Reiff shows how prior and during the strike, employers, striking workers,
and the press presented the dispute in terms of paternalistic
responsibilities.  George Pullman's goal to appear as a caring
employer-father backfired during the early phases of the strike, as the
press attacked Pullman, not for cutting wages, but for raising rents at a
time of economic depression.  Pullman, however, soon made a point of
hiring single women as the first strikebreakers, who he presented as the
most needy of his good will.  Notions of paternalism thus proved critical
in workers and employers' strategies during the walkout, and would inform
the rising reform consciousness as well.

One voice critical of the paternalistic consensus was Chicago reformer
Jane Addams, who in her essay "A Modern Lear" criticized Pullman for
treating his workers--men and women--like dependent children.  Yet as
Victoria Brown forcefully argues, Addams also intended to promote the
possibility of social consensus, between labor and capital as well as
between fathers and daughters.  Addams' vision of social
reconciliation--criticized by her contemporaries and many later historians
as a sign of personal weakness and/or naivete--in fact represented a
consistent and prophetic philosophical stand on how to overcome the social
divisions of the 1890s.  Only about twenty years later, when the country
was ripe with a progressive reform discourse, did Addams succeed in
getting her article published.

If Reiff and Brown both explore public reactions to the strike, Larry
Peterson deals with one of the main tools of public discourse: visual
representation.  The Pullman strike occurred during a transitional moment
of the visual imagery used in newspapers, as illustrative drawings
competed with photographs.  Neither form of representation, however,
proved adequate to represent this major social crisis to the viewing
public, a fact that only aggravated people's insecurities.  According to
Petersen, photographs undermined the credibility of illustrations as an
objective form of news and helped to expose the artistic conventions
behind them.  Yet photographs still lacked the technical and cultural
sophistication to fully replace their predecessors.  Only several years
later would the press recognize the power of photographic realism and use
it to argue for reform measures.  Given the changing nature of the public
sphere during the 1890s, this analysis of visual communication, though
somewhat awkwardly written, is extremely important.

With regard to changes in public attitudes, the Pullman strike thus can be
seen as an initiating moment that would gradually give rise to a new
reform consciousness, one based on a paternalistic consensus (Reiff), on a
newly formulated notion of societal commonweal (Brown), and on a new form
of visual representation (Peterson).  Yet, as all three essays argue, that
transition proved far from evident at the moment of crisis in the 1890s.

A final group of essays treats questions of politics.  Melvyn Dubofsky
charts the U.S. judiciary's attitude toward organized labor.  He rejects
interpretations of the critical legal school that present legal discourse
as "determinative" of social action.  Judicial language and logic was a
reflection as much as a shaper of the country's popular culture. Moreover,
judges' attitudes soon became more benevolent toward trade unionism.  Here
again, the Pullman strike is seen to occur during a transitional moment,
as the judiciary moved from an individualist, natural rights stand to a
gradual acceptance of group rights.

Moving from legal discourse to political ideology, the essay by Shelton
Stromquist describes important changes in the political philosophy of the
labor movement.  A series of defeats and disagreements among labor
leaders, including those involved in the Pullman strike, led to a
marginalization of a nineteenth century producerist, class-based vision of
society and gave rise to a "pure-and-simple" trade unionism dedicated to
reconciling the interests of labor and capital within the framework of the
corporate capitalist order.  Liberal, middle-class reformers would thus be
willing to enter cross-class alliances with Samuel Gompers and his
cohorts.  Apart from the Pullman strike--specifically the refusal of the
AFL to call for a general strike in support of the ARU--two other events
in 1894 contributed to that transformation: the defeat of the United
Miners Workers in the bituminous coal fields; and the failure of labor
leaders to agree on a program for independent political action.  Although
offering a good narrative of these occurrences, Stromquist's analysis, in
my view, suffers from an overly rigid categorization of social class and
political thought.  For one, his contrast of nineteenth century-labor
producerism as class-based with twentieth century trade unionism as an
interest-based vision appears too simplistic.

Richard Schneirov's essay offers a different interpretation of the same
occurrences: the debacle of Pullman, the shattering of the labor-populist
political coalition, and the rise of a new liberal politics.  Unlike
Stromquist, he celebrates the democratic potential of this cross-class
coalition of trade unionists and civic reformers.  Charting the dynamics
of Chicago politics during the 1880s and 1890s, he demonstrates how
skilled craft unions played a crucial role in initiating and furthering a
reform agenda, including questions of arbitration of labor disputes and
government regulation of public utilities.  Schneirov thus challenges the
pessimist view of the late nineteenth century by Stromquist and many other
labor historians.  If Stromquist proves too critical, Schneirov presents a
too optimistic view of the possibilities of this reform coalition.  By the
early twentieth century, the Civic Federation and the Chicago Federation
of Labor would sharply divide over questions of urban reform.[1]

In the epilogue, David Montgomery, finally offers what was missing in the
book's introduction: a conceptual framework.  Drawing on Karl Polanyi's
classic study, he considers the century since the Pullman strike in terms
of societal reactions against the destructive aspects of a free-market
economy.[2] On the side of capital, that adjustment meant a move from an
economy of individual competition to one based on corporate
administration--a transition underwritten by the disciplinary, regulatory,
and distributive functions of the state.  On the side of organized labor,
it consisted in ambitious but ultimately failed organizing drives to form
industrially-based unions, represented by the ARU and later the Industrial
Workers of the World.  Industrial unionism revived during the 1930s, but
during the Cold War would be "shorn of the revolutionary edge" (p 244).
The revived free-market orthodoxy of the 1990s, seeking global fiscal
discipline, a curtailed welfare state, and a weakened labor movement,
leaves the question of societal responses alive and well.  Montgomery's
conception of "society" includes organized labor and capital, yet makes
little consideration of other social actors, cross-class reform
coalitions, and the broader public treated by previous essays.

Ironically, in this collection we learn little new about the dynamics of
the strike itself.  In several essays, especially those on labor politics,
the dsipute appears as one of many occurrences.  Moreover, none of the
essays conveys a sense of the drama of the conflict (as Jeremy Brecher's
_Strike_ [revised, 1997] managed to do), a shortcoming especially
important when thinking of assigning the text to undergraduate students.

Yet the context of the event is well charted, as the articles effectively
demonstrate how the Pullman Strike provoked new perspectives on forms of
labor organization, ideology, and politics, the organization of capital,
as well as public discourse about industrial relations and social reform.
Without falling into an overly teleological treatment, these essays
convince us of the transformative qualities of this important moment of


[1]. Georg Leidenberger, "'The Public is the Labor Union': Working-Class
Progressivism in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago," _Labor History_ 36 (Spring

[2]. Karl Polanyi, _The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic
Origins of Our Time_ (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1944).

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Louis Proyect
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