Historic Pullman’s storied past, driven by George

Herald Intern

Little is straightforward about the motivations behind George Pullman’s perfectly planned town. A paternalistic wealthy industrialist or a daring social reformer; his company, trying to do its best for its employees or working hard to keep them down — these are the divergent roles, largely based on one’s point of view, in the story of Pullman and its strike.

The Pullman Palace Car Company was a corporation that built and operated a patented line of sleeper cars on America’s railroads. Besides fabricating the cars, the Pullman company also maintained them for the railroad lines with which they had signed contracts. In the 1880s, the company established a town for its workers in Hyde Park Township on the South Side of Chicago.

Pullman would recall in his statement to a Congressional committee investigating the Pullman strike that the town’s purpose was to provide “in close proximity to shops, homes for workingmen, of such character and surroundings as would prove so attractive as to cause the best class of mechanics to seek that place for employment in preference to others.” The company owned houses, storefronts and a church in Pullman, all of which were to be leased out to tenants for profit. The town was also outfitted with a library, reportedly above-par landscaping and what Pullman called a “scientific” sanitation system. The town was a finely-tuned business proposition on paper, but would prove in some ways to be a mistake in practice.

On May 7, 1894, a group of workers approached the company’s second vice president, Thomas Wickes, to urge the company to return to the wage schedule they had enjoyed in June, 1893 — some later swore that they were receiving four cents to a dollar above the rent they paid in 1894. He refused, saying that the company needed to keep wages low to retain employees who might otherwise be fired. The group countered with a proposal for lower rents in the company-owned houses, which was also rejected. After members of the committee were fired, charged with lack of work, Pullman workers went on strike.

The American Railway Union was sympathetic, initiating a boycott against Pullman cars. Union brakemen, switch operators and inspectors would refuse to handle the cars, acting in solidarity with the factory workers. A relief committee was established to distribute flour and other supplies to workers and rally the ranks. The strike lasted until U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney won an injunction forcing union members back to work on the Pullman cars. Acting on the President’s behalf, he brought in federal troops to enforce the court decision. Adding pressure to the situation already strained employees faced, they broke the strike, and workers returned to the Pullman shops.

When the dust settled on the workers’ side, 12 were dead and 515 had been arrested (only 71 were actually indicted). $350,000 was lost in wages. Pullman faced $685,308 in damage, including money used to pay deputy federal marshals, along with a $4,672,916 loss in earnings. The Pullman strike was in almost every newspaper.

From the Congressional committee which first investigated the strike to modern observers, almost anyone who reads the testimony and reports on Pullman seems to have questions about its founder’s character. Pullman maintained that his intent was only to provide his workers with the best accommodations on the best terms for the company — the Pullman company’s often cited refrain was that the working people were their most important asset. Some of the evidence, though, points to a paternalistic streak in Pullman. Pullman’s description of his plan for the town does risk being condescending in some places: “We also desired to establish the place on such a basis as would exclude all baneful influences,” he wrote. The Congressional report on the strike commented on the way the town’s library was run, saying that “exclusion from management” kept workers uninterested. “Men, as a rule, even when employees, prefer independence to paternalism in such matters,” it read.

Beyond concerns about the attitude towards workers, a debate still continues over whether the company was squeezing its employees unfairly for rent or simply trying to make good on its investment in the town. Pullman, in his annual address to stockholders given in October 1894, argued that more than two-thirds of strikers were not tenants in homes owned by the Pullman company. He then repeated an argument he had presented to Congress: that rents, which were 20 to 25 percent greater than those in comparable Chicago accommodations, were justified by the quality of Pullman’s landscaping, along with gas and water hookups residents enjoyed. The Pullman company claimed that it intended to make a 6 percent return on its investment in the town, and that it had only made between three- and four-and-a-half percent in the years leading up to the strike. The company was insistent on treating the town as a viable business move, even in leasing its church, which a member of the clergy testified was priced too highly to be viable for any congregation. A doctor in the town regularly encouraged patients who had been injured at work to settle with the company, and testified for Pullman in court when they would not.

The Congressional committee summed its findings up in one paragraph of its report. “We find on the one side a very wealthy and unyielding corporation, and upon the other a multitude of employees of comparatively excellent character and skill, but without local attachments or any interested responsibility in the town, its businesses, tenements, or surroundings,” they wrote.

The Pullman company eventually sold off its holdings in the neighborhood to residents, after the Supreme Court in Illinois ruled that it had overstepped its charter. Today, the town’s historic public spaces and the architecture of its homes are a reminder of George Pullman, his company, and questions that have no certain answers.