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Labor Day 2014: Preserving Labor’s Pullman Legacy

Labor Day marks not only the end of summer, but a momentous moment in our nation's history-- a moment that began at the Pullman Historic site in Chicago, Illinois.

Pullman was the nation's first planned industrial town, built around the Pullman Palace Car Company.  Known for the development of the sleeping car, the company operated during the U.S. railroad boom from the late 1800's to the early 1900's.

It was here that the members of the American Railway Union (ARU) launched a wildcat strike in 1894, provoked by reductions in poverty wage that pushed them ever deeper into debt to George Pullman, the “benevolent” overlord of the company town, who owned the workers’ homes and the stores where they purchased their daily needs.  ARU leader Eugene Debs initially opposed the strike. However, after seeing the abysmal conditions in the company town first hand, Debs resolved “to do everything in my power that was within law and within justice to right the wrongs of those employees."

After the union decided to support the strike, Pullman received a sweeping court injunction against the ARU. The next day President Cleveland ordered 20,000 federal troops to crush the strike and run the railways. Debs and ten other ARU leaders were arrested and convicted for conspiracy to halt the free flow of mail. The strike was violently crushed while Debs and the rest of the union leaders were sitting in jail.  In the wake of the strike Congress honored the slain workers by designating Labor Day as a national holiday.

Debs emerged from jail convinced that democratic socialism was needed for working people to have a real voice. He later became famous for winning nearly a million votes for President as a socialist, while he was in prison for encouraging young men to resist the draft in World War I.

The ARU had been founded by Debs as one of the first major industrial unions to organize all workers regardless of craft. However, black workers were excluded from the ARU, as they were from almost every union at the time.  Years later, Debs acknowledged that the exclusion of black workers by the ARU, apart from its immorality, was an important reason for the union's defeat by Pullman in 1894.

Chicago, and the Pullman Company, was also the catalyst for the birth of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Organized by A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood was one of the first and most powerful African-American unions. The campaign to found the union was long and difficult, facing opposition not just from the company but also many members of the black community. By the 1920s, the Pullman Company was one of the largest single employers of African-Americans, and had succeeded in recreating its public image of enlightened benevolence.  For black porters, as for their white ARU counterparts decades earlier, working for the Pullman Company was much less glamorous in practice than it appeared. Porters depended on tips for much of their income and were thus dependent on the generosity of white passengers. 

The Brotherhood’s organizing drive in Chicago began in earnest in 1925. It took ten years of concerted struggle, until 1935, for the Brotherhood to get its first collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company. Randolph, like Debs, went on to become a respected socialist leader of national stature.  He became the moving force behind the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, where he prophesied,

"We are the advance guard of a massive moral revolution that is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they are not free while we are not."

Today, much of the historic Pullman town still stands. This rare confluence of industry, labor, and African-American history has been recognized by the National Park Service as "conclusively nationally significant." Now the Park Service would like to make the Pullman Historic Site part of the National Park System. 

The proposal, which would create Chicago's first national park, has tremendous local support. By its tenth year of operation it's expected that the park will draw 300,000 visitors annually and create 356 jobs. It will generate $15 million in annual wages and $40 million in sustained economic output.

It will also help further efforts to make our country's public lands, parks and monuments more representative of the full American experience.  As Park Service director Jarvis noted in a recent interview, "If you step back…and look as a nation at what we set aside as historic (on the National Register of Historic Places), less than 10 percent of 80,000 sites represent the contributions of minorities and women. This is a problem."

President Obama has the authority to permanently protect this area as a national monument under the Antiquities Act. He has already used this authority eleven times before and has taken steps to include a diversity of places and experiences in America's wild legacy through the designation of such places as Fort Monroe, César Chávez and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monuments.  This Labor Day, I hope you’ll join me in asking that he continue that legacy by designating the Pullman Historic Site a national monument, thereby adding it to our National Park System.

-- by Dean Hubbard, director of the Sierra Club's Labor Program

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