- After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman
Pullman is a familiar name to U.S. history survey students. They encounter the company—which produced railroad cars and provided sleeping-car service to the nation's railroads—when studying late-nineteenth-century labor relations and the mid-twentieth-century struggle for civil rights. Texts point to Pullman as a symbol of Gilded Age anti-unionism. Students learn that in 1894 the federal government used an injunction and troops to crush a strike by Pullman railroad car builders that was being supported by an American Railway Union nationwide boycott of the company's sleeping cars. Pullman briefly reappears in chapters on World War II, when A. Phillip Randolph, president of the company's only independent union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, successfully led a movement of black workers demanding that the federal government prohibit discrimination in defense industries. Beyond these two pivotal events, Pullman typically recedes from historical notice.
Susan Eleanor Hirsch's book effectively places these events in the context of the Pullman Company's developing labor relations policies. For more than eighty years Pullman used a variety of managerial strategies in its quest to hold labor down costs and remain union-free. The Pullman workforce was divided into three segments: the manufacturing division, which built railway cars, the car repair division, and the passenger service division. To undermine worker solidarity across the units, the company devised a different labor strategy for each segment of the firm. From the beginning, Pullman sought to manipulate ethnic, racial, and gender differences to maintain control of the workplace. In the sleeping car service, for instance, the company combined adoption of the new bureaucratic form of labor management recently developed by the railroads with a policy of segmenting jobs by race. Hiring white men at higher wages as conductors and black men at low wages as porters divided workers, while a bonus and seniority system and welfare capitalist benefits promoted loyalty to the firm. Faith in the power of the environment to create a tractable labor force initially shaped labor policy in the manufacturing division. The benefits of Pullman's renowned model town, however, failed to prevent the white, largely skilled, but ethnically diverse workforce from uniting first in the Knights of Labor and then in the American Railway Union. Supported by the local community, unionists fought to defend craft skills, to gain shorter [End Page 725] hours, and to prevent wage cuts. After crushing the 1894 strike with the aid of the state, the company turned to technology and industrial engineering to take control of the workplace from the craftsmen in the manufacturing division and vigorously suppressed subsequent organizing efforts.
Pullman used yet another approach in its repair shops and yards. In response to new challenges to managerial control in the wake of the government takeover of sleeping car service and repair shops during World War I and the 1922 shopmen's strike, Pullman expanded its welfare programs, established employee representation plans, and—as a direct challenge to segregated American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions—integrated its repair shops, even promoting black men into skilled positions. Ironically, black workers found more equity in Pullman's ERP than in the lodges of the railway unions. In addition, a seniority system helped create a core of long-term repair shop employees. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the exception of the black porters, Pullman managed to keep independent unionism at bay—both AFL and the Congress of Industrial Labor (CIO)—through the establishment of company unions and "through a combination of positive incentives, manipulation of racial divisions among workers, and intimidation" (p. 147). Labor shortages during World War II temporarily broke long-standing gender barriers in all the divisions, and late in the war federal government intervention enabled the steelworkers to organize the Pullman Car Works. But racial conflict and the warfare between the CIO and AFL left most of the repair shop and...