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Sunday, March 29, 2009

George M. Pullman: Force for Progress or Corporate Despot?

And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers,
Ride their fathers' magic carpet made of steel...
- Steve Goodman


He was buried at night in a reinforced crypt with tons of concrete poured on top of his casket to protect it from desecration by those who hated him. He was the American idyll, the self-made man. In his life, he changed the way people traveled, he built his vision of a planned community, and he was the center of one of the most bitter labor struggles of his era. His name was George Mortimer Pullman.

Pullman’s name has become eponymous with three things: railroad sleeping-cars, the village he created to house his factory workers outside of Chicago, and the bitter labor strike of 1894.

George Pullman was born in western New York in1831. He left school when he was 14 and worked for a time in his brother’s cabinet-making business. He was an ambitious kid with a natural talent for business. While still in New York, his father, a builder, had contracted to move local buildings that were in the way of a project to widen the Erie Canal. When his father died unexpectedly, George took over the contracts and successfully completed the work. He took those building-moving skills with him to Chicago. The young city was built on a low-lying swamp. Entire blocks needed to be raised to afford better drainage and sewer function and Pullman was one of the men who was contracted to raise the buildings and streets. While on an early train trip, he experienced the primitive conditions on early railroad cars which had only rough bunks for sleeping. In his own discomfort, he saw opportunity. He began building a better sleeping-car but the Civil War interrupted his early plans as all available manufacturing resources were turned to the war effort.


Pullman went to the Colorado gold fields during the Civil War. After raising capital in a dozen business ventures related to the mining industry, Pullman returned to Chicago and began building the most luxurious sleeping-cars of his day. His cars cost four times what a normal passenger-car cost. They made long, grueling railroad trips not only tolerable but comfortable. Pullman slowly signed up one railroad after another to put his sleeping-cars in their passenger trains. But unlike other car manufacturers, Pullman never sold his cars to the railroads, he leased them and managed them directly. He was the first to hire special sleeping car porters to make up the beds at night. These Pullman Porters were almost always black men from the south. While he paid them lower wages than he would have had to pay to whites, his wages were much better than most blacks could earn in other occupations. By leasing the cars, he insured not only the quality of the service (and hence repeat customers) but he also was able to move his cars between railroads to balance changes in seasonal demand.


In the early 1880’s with his business needing new and enlarged manufacturing facilities, Pullman decided to build a huge new factory complex outside of Chicago. To optimize the output of his workers, he envisioned an ideal community with everything that his workers would need. It would also be free of the vices found in other cities. He worked with a young architect, Solon Spencer Beman, and a landscape architect, Nathan F. Barrett, to design his planned community. It was named, naturally enough, Pullman, Illinois. Pullman never considered anything more than a prudent business investment. It was expected to return a profit and increase the productivity of his workers. While the town looked wonderful and visitors marveled at the architecture, the workers themselves grew to hate it. They had no say in the administration of their town, the rents were high, and any discussions of organizing labor was severely repressed.

The Panic of 1893 was brought on by speculation and overbuilding of railroads. As railroads failed, a recession set in and orders for Pullman cars plummeted. In 1894, Pullman laid off two-thirds of his workforce and cut the salaries of the remainder by 25 percent. He didn’t, however, reduce his rents or the costs of food and other necessities in the town of Pullman. When his employees appealed to him to either cut the rents or reinstate their wages, he refused to negotiate. Many of his workers were getting paychecks, after withholding for rent, of only a few pennies to feed their families.

Eugene V. Debs had been organizing the American Railway Union to bring together the less-skilled workers of the nation’s railroads (the skilled workers formed brotherhoods which did not participate in the subsequent strike actions). The ARU organized the Pullman workers and George Pullman immediately closed his doors and laid off even those workers who did not join the union. Pullman was repeatedly asked to go to arbitration to settle the strike but he steadfastly refused. The strike eventually disrupted the U.S. Mail service which was primarily carried by train. Because the ARU had members nation-wide and because Chicago was the major rail hub, the strike started to impact rail service across the country. The disruption of the mail gave President Grover Cleveland an excuse to send in Federal troops to break the strike. A dozen strikers were killed in the battles that followed and millions of dollars were lost in damages to buildings and property. But the strike was broken, as was the union. Debs was arrested, convicted and spent six months in prison.

George Pullman became one of the most hated faces of the Gilded Age. He died three years later in 1897 of a heart attack. It was the residual hostility from the Pullman Strike that resulted in his burial at night to protect his body from desecration.

The deep unrest between labor and capital was not resolved by the Pullman Strike. It seems to me that the story essentially repeated itself with Henry Ford who first raised his workers up with the five dollar day and then tried to ultimately deny them a decent living which lead to the violent River Rouge Strikes of 1937. But at least one good thing came out of the Pullman Strikes and other labor unrest of that period. Labor Day was created as a national holiday in June of 1894 both to commemorate the working class of the country and to dampen the hostilities between labor and capital.

George Pullman was an entrepreneur, a visionary thinker, and a social experimenter. Pullman was not, however, someone who could see that it was in his best interest and the interest of his company to arbitrate his differences with his workforce. His intractable position cost many people, himself included, dearly.

Post Script: Following his death, the courts forced the Pullman Company to divest itself of its real estate holdings, and the town of Pullman was annexed into the city of Chicago. You can still visit the neighborhoods today. See this link on Flickr.

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