July 2, 2004
CHICAGO (July 2)—UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo has been elected Secretary/Treasurer of the Historic Pullman Foundation, a not-for-profit group working to maintain and restore the 19th-century factory and “model town” created by the inventor of the railroad sleeping car.
Szabo, who has been serving on the Foundation’s Board of Directors since 2000, said the much of his duties would be devoted to assisting the Board in fund-raising.
But he said he also plans to use his position to improve public understanding of the Pullman Historic District’s role in the development of the American labor movement, particularly rail labor.
“Most school children learn a little something in history class about how George M. Pullman developed a practical sleeping car that revolutionized American travel habits following the Civil War,” Szabo said.
“And some of those kids learn that Pullman built a large factory complex and a model town for his workers just south of what was the Chicago city limits in 1880,” he said.
“But not enough people realize that the Town of Pullman was the scene of one of the most important events in American labor history—the Pullman strike of 1894,” Szabo said. “That strike ignited the American labor movement and laid the foundation for later union organizing drives and collective bargaining that transformed millions of working men and women into solid middle-class citizens by the 1950s.”
The Town of Pullman that George M. Pullman built between 1880 and 1884 to house his workers still stands on roughly half a square mile of Chicago’s South Side. It is bounded by 111th Street on the north, 115th Street on the south, Cottage Grove Avenue on the west and the Bishop Ford Freeway on the east.
But Pullman no longer is privately owned, as it was when George M. Pullman established it as his personal estate, with workers renting houses and apartments from the company. The City of Chicago annexed it in 1898 after Pullman died.
It’s a real town, not a museum
Today Pullman is a flourishing Chicago neighborhood known as the Pullman Historic District and a site on the National Register of Historic Places. Prosperous middle-class families are busily restoring the handsome, red brick row houses designed for Pullman’s workers and managers by famed architect Solon S. Beman.
At the same time, the Historic Pullman Foundation is raising funds and working with the Illinois Department of Historic Preservation to restore Pullman’s public and commercial buildings: the Hotel Florence, Market Square and a few buildings that remain from the factory itself. And a rail museum is planned for the factory site.
“Pullman is important for many reasons,” Szabo said. “At a time when American industrial workers lived in dingy tenements with a common privy in the back yard and kerosene lamps providing the only artificial light, George Pullman provided his workers with the latest in indoor plumbing, piped-in gas, central heating and even electric light. The company provided a bank, a shopping center with a butcher shop and produce market, even picked up the garbage and kept the streets clean. It was supposed to be a workers’ utopia.”
But Mr. Pullman’s workers saw his dark side emerge in 1893, after a financial panic swept the country and money and jobs began to dry up. To save money, Pullman cut his workers’ wages 25 per cent. But he refused to reduce the rents on the apartments and row houses his employees occupied, and he refused to cut the prices in the company’s stores. The workers laid down their tools and walked off the job.
In a coast-to-coast display of solidarity with their Pullman brothers, the nation’s railroad workers refused to handle the sleeping cars that Pullman had leased to virtually every American carrier. Leading the sleeping-car boycott was Eugene V. Debs, a locomotive fireman from Terre Haute, Ind., and founder of the American Railway Union (ARU).
Although Debs planned for the ARU to replace the individual craft unions with a single giant bargaining agent representing all railroad employees, he never got the chance. Using a court injunction and federal troops, President Grover Cleveland broke the Pullman strike and Debs’ dream of “One Big Union.” Debs even did six months’ jail time after the courts ruled his boycott interfered with the movement of the U.S. Mail.
But Debs’s vision of a common rail union never died. Instead, it sprouted again eight decades later when the UTU was formed out of an amalgamation of four railroad craft unions.
“Eugene Debs is the spiritual father of the UTU,” Szabo said. “He understood that unrestrained corporate power can be balanced only by a union with the size and scope to match the wealth and clout of the employer. Only power speaks to power. Little guys can’t do it unless they’re organized into something big.”
Szabo said that lesson was learned again in the 1930s—and again at Pullman—when the sleeping-car porters who worked for the Pullman Company organized their own union under the leadership of labor legend A. Philip Randolph. The Brotherhood of Railway Sleeping Car Porters became the nation’s first black union, and Randolph’s experience in organizing it paid dividends two decades later when he became a major power in the young civil-rights movement.
“Several threads of American history lead back to the ‘model town’ of Pullman,” Szabo said. “It’s not just about prize-winning architecture and picturesque front porches, and it’s not just about Mr. Pullman’s wonderful invention that made railroad travel practical and popular.
“It’s about power, and a bringing of balance to that power. The drama of Pullman teaches us a lesson that the current generation needs to re-learn: The enormous power of corporate ownership and management becomes destructive and dangerous unless it is balanced by the power of organized labor. As an officer of the Historic Pullman Foundation I will work to re-ignite the vision of Debs and get that story told.”