September 23, 2008
Millions of Americans will gather in thousands of places to celebrate Labor Day September 1, but only a few hundred lucky ones will do it in exactly the right place: the Historic Pullman neighborhood on Chicago far South Side.
Why is Pullman “exactly the right place” for union members and their families to celebrate Labor Day? And why is it particularly important to UTU members?
Because it’s the spiritual birthplace of the modern American labor movement—site of the legendary Pullman Strike of 1894 that spread from George M. Pullman’s passenger-car factory to the entire American railroad system and set off a wave of unionization that persisted well into the 20th century.
And it’s even more significant to railroad workers.
Led by Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), a former locomotive fireman from Terre Haute, Pullman workers went on strike after Pullman cut their wages but not the rents on the houses he built for them. Debs believed workers would never be able to protect themselves against the wealth and power of the railroad barons until all rail workers—including the men who built the locomotives and cars–were members of “one big union,” the American Railway Union Debs had founded in 1893.
ARU members voted to support the Pullman strikers, using a unique power that they alone controlled: ARU brakemen and switchmen simply refused to operate trains containing Pullman sleeping cars. If a train with Pullman cars chugged into a station where ARU members were operating switch engines, the ARU members cut the offending Pullman cars out of the consist and left them standing on depot sidings.
What started at Pullman brought decent salaries, the 40-hour work week, workplace-safety laws, health-care coverage and retirement benefits first to railroaders, and then to millions of miners, automobile workers, longshoremen, truck drivers, construction hands and public-safety employees.
But while history makes Pullman meaningful, careful design and patient restoration have made it beautiful—the perfect place for your family’s Labor Day Picnic. Most of what was once called the Town of Pullman is still there, lovingly restored and looking just as handsome and welcoming as it did in the 1880s, when Pullman hired famed architect Solon S. Beman and landscape architect Nathan F. Barrett to create a “model town” for his employees.
And you can see it come to life again at Pullman on Labor Day. No, you won’t see the Pullman strike restaged. But thanks to the Pullman Civic Organization, the Pullman Historic Foundation, the Illinois Labor History Society, the Illinois AFL-CIO and the Bronzeville/Chicago Black History Society, you will get to see and hear some of the personalities associated with the Pullman legacy.
This year’s Pullman Labor Day celebration begins at 2 p.m. at the Florence Hotel in Arcade Park when actors will portray key figures in the Pullman drama. “Eugene Debs” will address the crowd. So will an actress playing Jennie Curtis, who headed the “girls’ local union in 1894. “A. Philip Randolph,” founder of the Brotherhood of Railroad Sleeping Car Porters, will appear. And so will “President Franklin D. Roosevelt,” who will remind everyone that 2008 is the 75th anniversary of his New Deal.
“That’s why I urge all UTU members—and, in fact, all working families–to spend part of Labor Day at Pullman and honor these pioneers who laid the foundations of a better life for all rail employees and all American working people,” said UTU State Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Relax under a shade tree, enjoy lunch with your family, and hear these ‘historic figures’ speak. Pullman is like a movie set—only it’s real. It’ll be the most enjoyable history lesson you ever had.”
The Pullman Historic District is located at 111th and Cottage Grove on Chicago’s South Side, easily accessible from the 111th St. exit of the Bishop Ford Freeway and from the Metra Electric station at 111th St. For further information contact Tom Shepherd, president of the Pullman Civic Organization at (773) 928-3040 or the Illinois Labor History Society at (312) 663-4107.