CHAPTER XIV. THE RISE OF THE WAGE EARNER
During the presidential campaign of 1892 a violent strike at the Carnegie Steel Company's works in Homestead, Pennsylvania, arose from a reduction in wages and a refusal of the Company to recognize the Iron and Steel Workers' Union. An important feature of this disturbance was the use of armed Pinkerton detectives by the Company for the protection of its buildings. Armed with rifles they fell into conflict with the workmen, a miniature military campaign was carried on, lives were lost and large amounts of property destroyed. Eventually the entire militia of the state had to be called out to maintain peace.
It remained, however, for Chicago and the year 1894 to present one of the most far-reaching, costly and complex labor upheavals that has ever disturbed industrial relations in America. So ill understood at the time were the real facts of the controversy that it is doubtful whether it is possible even now to distinguish between truth and rumor in regard to some of its aspects.
The town of Pullman, near Chicago, was the home of the Pullman Palace Car Company, a prosperous corporation with a capital of $36,000,000. It provided houses for its employees, kept up open stretches of lawn, flower beds and lakes. In 1893 and 1894, when general business conditions were bad, the Company reduced the wages of its workmen about twenty-five per cent. A committee of the men asked for a return to former rates, but they were refused, three members of the committee were laid off, and the employees then struck. Late in June, 1894, the American Railway Union, to which many of the workmen belonged, took up the side of the men, and the General Managers' Association, comprising officials of twenty-four roads entering Chicago, took the side of the Company. Through the entry of the Union and the Association, the relatively unimportant Pullman affair expanded to large proportions. Violence followed; cars were tipped over and burned; property was stolen and tracks ruined; and eventually the United States government was drawn into the controversy.
Numerous complaints having reached Washington that the mails were being obstructed and interstate commerce interfered with, President Cleveland decided to send troops to Chicago. The Constitution requires that the United States protect states against domestic violence on the application of the legislature, or of the executive when the legislature is not in session. Moreover the statutes of the United States empower the President to use federal force to execute federal laws. The position taken by the Governor of Illinois, John P. Altgeld, was expressed in his telegram to President Cleveland protesting against the action of the executive:
Should the situation at any time get so serious that we cannot
control it with the State forces, we will promptly and freely ask
for Federal assistance; but until such time I protest with all due
deference against this uncalled-for reflection upon our people,
and again ask for the immediate withdrawal of these troops.
The President replied that troops were being sent in accordance with federal law upon complaint that commerce and the passage of the mails were being obstructed. A somewhat acrimonious correspondence between the Governor and the President resulted but the troops were retained and assisted in bringing the strike to a conclusion.
The attitude of the courts, meanwhile, had brought up a serious situation. On July 2 a "blanket injunction" was issued by the United States District Court of Illinois and posted on the sides of the cars. It forbade officers, members of the Union and all other persons to interfere in any way with the operation of trains or to force or persuade employees to refuse to perform their duties. Under existing law, anybody who disobeyed the injunction could be brought before the Court for contempt, and sentenced by the judge without opportunity to bring witnesses and to be tried before a jury. When Eugene V. Debs, the president of the Union, and other officers continued to direct the strike they were arrested for contempt of court and imprisoned. With federal troops against them and their officers gone, the strikers could hardly continue and gave up in defeat. The loss in property and wages had already reached $80,000,000.
The apportionment of the blame for so appalling a controversy was not a simple task. On the one hand, a writer in the Forum declared that
The one great question was of the ability of this Government to
suppress insurrection. On the one, side was the party of lawlessness,
of murder, of incendiarism, and of defiance of authority. On the
other side was the party of loyalty to the United States.