Pullman Strike

In 1894 George Pullman, the president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, decided to reduced the wages of his workers. When the company refused arbitration, the American Railway Union called a strike. Starting in Chicago it spread to 27 states.

The attorney-general, Richard Olney, sought an injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As a result, of Olney's action, Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, was arrested and despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, was imprisoned. The case came before the Supreme Court in 1895. David Brewer spoke for the court on 27th May, explaining why he refused the American Railway Union's appeal. This decision was a great set-back for the trade union movement. David Brewer died on 28th March, 1910.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Gompers, letter to Judge Peter Grossup concerning the imprisonment of Eugene Debs during the Pullman Strike (14th August, 1894)

You know, or ought to know, that the introduction of machinery is turning into idleness thousands faster than the new industries are founded, and yet, machinery certainly should not be either destroyed or hampered in its full development. The labourer is a man, he is made warm by the same sun and made cold - yes, colder - by the same winter as you are. He has a heart and brain, and feels and knows the human and paternal instinct for those depending upon him as keenly as do you.

What shall the workers do? Sit idly by and see the vast resources of nature and the human mind be utilized and monopolized for the benefit of the comparative few? No. The labourers must learn to think and act, and soon, too, that only by the power of organization and common concert of action can either their manhood be maintained, their rights to life be recognized, and liberty and rights secured.

(2) David Brewer, ruling of the Supreme Court on Eugene Debs and the Pullman Strike (27th May, 1895)

It is obvious that while it is not the province of the government to interfere in any mere matter of private controversy between individuals, or to use its great powers to enforce the rights of one against another, yet, whenever the wrongs complained of are such as affect the public at large, and are in respect of matters which by the Constitution are entrusted to the care of the nation, and concerning which the nation owes the duty to all the citizens of securing to them their common rights, then the mere fact that the government has no pecuniary interest in the controversy is not sufficient to exclude it from the courts or prevent it from taking measures therein to fully discharge those constitutional duties.

The national government, given by the Constitution power to regulate interstate commerce, has by express statute assumed jurisdiction over such commerce when carried upon railroads. It is charged, therefore, with the duty of keeping those highways of interstate commerce free from obstruction, for it has always been recognized as one of the powers and duties of a government to remove obstructions from the highways under its control.