The Pullman Strike of 1894 was the biggest strike in American history. The upstart American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, was supporting a factory strike in Chicago against the makers of Pullman cars. The nation was in the midst of a deep depression, the Panic of 1893, and the strike in Chicago was failing. Debs escalated it by having his ARU members refuse to handle trains that carried Pullman cars (which were luxury passenger cars, and also carried the U.S. mail.) The railroads fired the ARU members, the ARU then tried to shut down the national railroad system in July, 1894. It largely succeeded west of Detroit (but failed in the East and South because it had few members there). The federal government under President Grover Cleveland, a conservative Democrat went to federal court to get an injunction against Debs and the ARU, noting federal responsibility to move the mails. They ignored the injunction and Cleveland sent in the U.S. Army to enforce the law, move the mail, and break the strike. Disorganized violence by strikers against the army and the railroads broke out in many rail centers from Chicago to the West Coast, but the army got the job done and the strike soon ended.
The strike was based in Chicago but affected the entire west, especially the Northern Pacific Railroad routes in Montana. The Great Northern and Union Pacific railroads experienced less disruption. The disruptions lasted several weeks in summer 1894. Violent union activists from the newly formed American Railway Union in Billings, Livingston, Butte, Helena, and Missoula tried to stop the movement of trains operated by workers who belonged to the older established railroad brotherhoods. President Cleveland sent in troops from the 22d US Infantry to patrol Northern Pacific tracks and depots. Union activists threatened and actually attacked the troops in Livingston. Unionized miners from western Montana supported A.R.U. efforts. After the strike collapsed, N.P. and U.P. officials blacklisted many Montana railroad employees. Six A.R.U. leaders were also convicted of violating an anti-strike injunction. The Pullman Strike was a central event in the labor turbulence and political activism, which swept Montana during the 1890s, fostered by strong anti-railroad populism among some farmers and many miners in the state.
Noting that the mail is a constitutional duty of the federal government, Cleveland rejected the demands by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, a fellow Democrat, to stay out. Altgeld, with ties to the labor unions, was a leader of the radical left wing of the party, and was using states rights arguments favored by southerners who wanted no federal protection of the voting rights of blacks. "If it takes the the entire army and navy . . . to deliver a postal card in Chicago, that card will be delivered." he promised. Cleveland ignored Altgeld and the states rights argument—and indeed consulted with no one outside his cabinet—and sent in the army to take control of the rail yards in Chicago and dozens of other major cities. Cleveland had the strike leaders arrested as strikers attacked the army violently in numerous cities. The army reopened the rail system, ended the strike, and broke the union. Cleveland had made the most dramatic intervention of federal power into local affairs since the end of Reconstruction, and was bitterly resented by states-rights elements.
The aftermath was complex. Debs went to prison (for violating a court order) and his ARU disappeared. The traditional railroad brotherhoods, which had not supported the strike, went back to work, but ARU activists were blacklisted and could not get jobs on any railroad. The Democratic party was ripped apart. Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois, a left-wing Democrat, denounced President Cleveland and started organizing the forces that defeated Cleveland's supporters at the 1896 Democratic convention. It seemed for a while that the big winners were the Populists (Populist Party) who endorsed the ARU, and their vote increased in the fall 1894 elections for Congress. However they were splitting the Democratic vote, and the conservative Republicans, led by Ohio Governor William McKinley scored the biggest landslide in Congressional history. In New England, for example, the Democrats elected only one member of Congress.
The strike permanently shaped American labor relations, with the government demonstrating it would not tolerate a shutdown of the national transportation grid (in the days before automobiles and trucks, railroads were essential.) The AFL unions refused to support the strike and now moved to close cooperation with business and the GOP, as typified by the National Civic Federation. The next wave of major strikes hit the country in 1919, and again unions were badly hurt by their rash actions.
- Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike (1943)
- Lindsey, Almont. "Paternalism and the Pullman Strike," American Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jan., 1939), pp. 272–289 in JSTOR
- Papke, David Ray. The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America (1999), focus on legal dimension
- Rondinone, Troy. "Guarding the Switch: Cultivating Nationalism During the Pullman Strike," Journal of the Gilded Age & Progressive Era 2009 8(1): 83-109 27p.
- Schneirov, Richard, et al. eds. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics (1999)
- W. Thomas White, "Boycott: the Pullman Strike in Montana." Montana: the Magazine of Western History 1979 29(4): 2-13