Going to the Pullman Hell

In the States, yesterday was Labor Day.

Many places in the world, “labor day” is celebrated on May 1 – International Workers’ Day. But, International Workers’ Day is a little too Communist for most Americans’ taste, so we celebrate in September instead.

While there had been several efforts to make an official labor holiday in the U.S., the idea didn’t really take hold until several workers were killed by U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike.

That’ll do it for you.

The Pullman Strike, for those who don’t know, was a watershed moment for the U.S. labor movement. There’s a reason they hardly talk about it in school.

Workers for George Pullman’s train company were essentially indentured labor. They lived in Pullman towns and bought produce from the company store. But they didn’t get paid enough to settle their company bills. So they had to keep working until their debt was (never) paid off.

One of my favorite quotes from the Pullman Strike came from a laborer, in 1883:

We are born in a Pullman house.
We are fed from a Pullman shop,
taught in a Pullman school,
catechized in the Pullman church
and when we die we shall be buried in a Pullman cemetery
and go to a Pullman hell.

Incidentally, on the one page my American History text book devoted to this strike, the editor elected to remove the last line of this quote. As if going to a Pullman hell was the most unspeakable part of the whole ordeal.

After workers went on strike, the U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney obtained an injunction saying the strike was illegal. President Cleveland sent in federal troops, and things got pretty messy from there.

People died.

But I got Monday off.

Ultimately, the strike was crushed. Many strikers were blackballed. Gene Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), was sent to prison. It was a huge victory for the ruling elite.

But something shifted. People across the country started to ask – why aren’t workers treated fairly? What’s so wrong about wanting to feed your family? How is it okay for our own government to attack citizens just trying to get a decent wage? Something was broken.

The days of the Pullman Strike and rough and tumble union politics seem distant and ephemeral. But never forget what those workers did for you. They risked everything – and sometimes lost everything – because it needed to be done. Because the system wasn’t fair and something needed to be done.

Something still needs to be done.

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