Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

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Digital History ID 3195



1894 was the second of four years of depression. The pinch was felt even by the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured the sleeping cars used by most of the nation's railroads. George Pullman responded by laying off several thousand of his 5,800 employees and cutting pay 25 to 50 percent, while refusing to reduce rents charged employees, who lived in the company town of Pullman, near Chicago. Then he fired three members of a workers' grievance committee.

On May 11, 1894, 90 percent of his workers went on strike. The strike spread nationwide when the American Railway Union refused to move trains with Pullman cars. Within a month, more than a quarter million other railroad employees had joined the strike.

The government, under President Grover Cleveland, swiftly won a court injunction ordering strikers back to work. When they refused to comply, he dispatched more than 14,000 federal troops and marshals. In Chicago, when soldiers fired into a crowd of 10,000, 25 persons were killed, 60 badly injured. Hundreds were jailed, including union leader Eugene Debs, who subsequently founded the Socialist party. Railroad attorney Clarence Darrow switched sides and defended Debs, launching his career as a defender of underdogs. Social Worker Jane Addams led an investigation of the strike.

Samuel Gompers and his fellow craft unionists at the helm of the American Federation of Labor spurned Debs' plea for a general strike to protest enlistment of the White House and the courts on the side of management.

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