Author Interview


Your book The Edge of Anarchy details the Pullman Strike, a massive labor uprising in 1894. Why is this story relevant today?
In the 1800s, technology leaped ahead, the nature of work changed, inequality grew, and immigrants flooded the country. These events set the tone for the Gilded Age. Now we live in what some call the New Gilded Age. We again face changes in technology, the disruption of traditional work, expanding inequality, and concerns over immigration. A look back to the 1890s offers important perspectives on our own time.

How did the Pullman strike get its name? Who was George Pullman?
Pullman made a fortune by developing sleeping and dining cars at a time when railroads dominated the landscape. For him, it was a path to wealth. He also sought a solution to urban ills by creating a model town near his factory outside Chicago. During the economic depression that began in 1893, Pullman cut wages, but continued to charge his workers exorbitant rents. They went on strike

How did the strike against the Pullman Company expand to become a national crisis?
Pullman employees were members of a new industry-wide union of railroad workers called the American Railway Union or ARU, which had been started in 1893 by Eugene Debs. The members, who operated the nation’s trains, resolved to cease handling Pullman cars until the company met its employees’ demands. Railroad managers, hoping to break the ARU, fired employees who wouldn’t obey orders, leading to a shutdown that affected many rail lines. Food and fuel shortages spread across the country.

Who was Eugene Debs?
Bernie Sanders called Debs, “the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.” The son of immigrants, Debs was a pioneer in organizing railroad employees. He thought that worker solidarity, expressed through the ARU, could be a match for corporate power. Although he cautioned the Pullman workers against a strike, he supported them wholeheartedly once they walked out. Debs served time in jail for leading the boycott and afterward became a leader of the Socialist Party. He ran for president five times under the party’s banner.

Was the Pullman strike violent?
Many unemployed men, only some of them strikers, congregated in rail yards and tried to disrupt trains. At first there was little disorder. It was only after the deployment of federal troops that the violence ramped up. The looting and burning of rail cars broke out in Chicago (some said the perpetrators were provocateurs hired by the railroad companies themselves). Shooting by militiamen and U.S. Army soldiers killed several dozen people around the country.

What was the government’s role in the strike?
It was U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney who said the strike had brought the country to the “ragged edge of anarchy.” Olney, who remained a director of railroad companies even while serving as AG, convinced President Grover Cleveland to support the railroads in the dispute. Federal courts issued injunctions making even talk of a strike illegal. Federal infantry, cavalry and artillery units moved into Chicago and other cities. Debs and his fellow ARU leaders were jailed.

How did the strike end?
The arrest of scores of strikers for violating the injunction, along with federal bullets and bayonets, allowed the railroads to begin moving trains. Plans for a nationwide general strike fell apart. High unemployment created a surplus of replacement workers. The boycott ended. Desperate Pullman workers had no choice but to give up their demands and return to work.

Who won the strike?
The outcome of the strike was paradoxical. The railroad companies and George Pullman got what they wanted – workers came back on the companies’ terms. Eugene Debs challenged the government’s power to make a strike illegal, but the Supreme Court ruled against him. He spent six months in jail for defying the injunction. But Pullman was vilified for his intransigence, while Eugene Debs was lionized. A federal commission laid most of the blame for the turmoil on Pullman and the rail corporations. Legislation a few years later gave railroad workers the right to unionize and speeded the introduction of safer working conditions and the arbitration of disputes.

Did the Pullman Strike have anything to do with the Pullman porters?
George Pullman hired freed slaves to serve customers in his sleeping cars. In spite of low pay and demeaning conditions, the men were thankful for any job. Pullman became the largest employer of African Americans in the nation. When the strike broke out in 1894, American Railway Union members refused to “brother” black fellow workers. Years later, the porters were organized by A. Philip Randolph into the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In 1937, after a decade-long struggle, they managed to become the first black union to win recognition from a major company.