During the Panic of 1893 and the resulting depression, George M. Pullman’s efforts to avoid financial ruin caused violent, deadly strikes. He and his contemporaries faced serious declines in business as many railroads went bankrupt. Pullman wanted to keep his Pullman Palace Car Company intact without laying off any workers.
Pullman’s plan was more beneficial to Pullman than his workers. This plan reduced wages and increased working hours. It didn’t include reducing rents on the properties he leased to his workers. Neither did it include lowering prices in the company’s stores. Rents for leased properties were automatically deducted from a worker’s paycheck. The reduced wages meant that many workers were left with only a few cents to feed their families after working longer hours. In effect, they didn’t have a living wage.
Since independent newspapers, public speeches, town meetings, charitable organizations and open discussion were banned in Pullman, workers had no recourse to address their grievances or find help. The desperate workers sought help from Eugene Victor Debs and the American Railroad Union (ARU) in 1894. They voted to strike on May 11. Company management refused to negotiate with anyone, and the union called for a boycott of Pullman cars on June 11. Other unions held sympathy strikes for the purpose of paralyzing the railroad industry, and the strikes turned violent. Deaths, property damage and looting in Pullman and Chicago were reported.
President Grover Cleveland, over the objections of Illinois Governor John Altgeld, ordered federal troops to Pullman on July 3 to stop the violence and end the strike. Four days later, Debs and other union leaders were jailed. The factory reopened in August, and the union leaders were fired, but public opinion turned against Pullman.
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