“Pullman affords the unique opportunity to tell in one location the story of Illinois’ early industrialization, its key role in the development of the nation’s transportation systems, and its vibrant African American history,” noted former Governor Pat Quinn, whose reelection last November was thwarted by the staunchly anti-union millionaire Bruce Rauner. If it affords that opportunity, the question is: what story will it tell?
Ron Grossman, a longtime Chicago Tribune reporter, predicted accurately that “February being Black History Month, Obama may well note that Pullman’s sleeping cars employed black porters, jobs that allowed them to escape the plantations of the Jim Crow South. But will the president dwell on the ugly chapters of Pullman’s history?” The answer, it turns out, was yes.
President Obama drew upon a traditional – and valid – narrative of Pullman’s past. George Pullman, an enterprising entrepreneur, climbed the economic ladder to its top rung. In 1880, he built a model town to host his manufacturing facilities and employees: he owned not just the factories but the stores, houses, and even churches. What Pullman saw as an ordered utopia his employees experienced as undemocratic paternalism and autocracy. While he “lived out America’s promise,” the President noted, Pullman and other Gilded Age tycoons “weren’t always that keen about making sure their workers were able to live out the same promise.”
When the economy tanked in 1893, Pullman slashed his workers’ wages but refused to lower the rents he charged. The result was the formation of a union, followed by a strike in 1894. Although the president never mentioned its name – the American Railway Union – or its leader, the soon-to-be socialist Eugene V. Debs, he did acknowledge that the labor unrest spread, federal troops were called in to crush the strike, and thirty workers were killed. But the idea of organized collective bargaining, he concluded, “[c]ould not be silenced.”
In their coverage of the Pullman dedication, journalists misleadingly linked the community to a broader civil rights story. Pullman is “noted for giving birth to the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,” one reporter put it in a representative formulation. The Washington Post told readers that the “Pullman Park district was where African American porters employed by the Pullman rail company organized a labor union in the 1920s that became the first such group in the nation’s history.” To his credit, Obama was more careful with his history than were journalists when connecting Pullman to a civil rights narrative.
The connection was more indirect, as the President noted. White Pullman workers won rights that black workers were denied, he stated. (Not only that, but Pullman’s white employees barred African Americans from membership in their otherwise radical union, a move that Debs decried at the time and later invoked as a factor weakening the union). It was in Harlem, the President correctly noted, that a small number of Pullman porters – black men who served white passengers on board the luxury Pullman Palace Sleeping Cars – organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. (Few of these men lived in Pullman; the majority resided in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, and other rail hubs). Twelve years after its founding, the fledgling union signed its first contract with the Pullman company as the legally recognized bargaining agent for its all-black workforce.
This was one of the “first great victories in what would become the Civil Rights Movement,” Mr. Obama concluded. In the years ahead, the Brotherhood provided a foundation upon which its leader, A. Philip Randolph, would pressure President Franklin Roosevelt into issuing Executive Order 8802, prohibiting (in theory) discrimination in war industries, in 1941; in 1948, he would pressure President Harry S. Truman into issuing Executive Order 9981, beginning the desegregation of the armed forces. In the mid-1950s, the porters provided crucial support for and leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And in 1963, the porters’ Randolph was the force behind the March on Washington, which drew a quarter of a million protesters, black and white, to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for “Jobs and Freedom.” The president quoted from Randolph’s eloquent speech that day: “We are the advance guard of a massive, moral revolution,” Randolph declared before the assembled crowd in 1963. “A massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom,” the President claimed is “not just the story of a movement, that’s the story of America. Because as Americans, we believe that workers’ rights are civil rights.”
President Obama did his homework. In the short time he had available, he managed to do justice to the Pullman story. It’s a story that Illinois’ new governor Rauner probably doesn’t appreciate as he provokes a battle with public employee unions in his state. Nor is it a story with which Republicans – and more than a few Democrats – will sympathize, given the demonization of organized labor in recent decades. Indeed, in his six years in office President Obama has done relatively little to aid the embattled unions, institutions he credited with lifting American workers into the middle class.
“What this is about,” the President quoted Randolph as telling Pullman porters in 1925, “is making you master of your economic fate.” Yet today, few workers feel like the masters of their own fate, economic or otherwise. The President also quoted what Randolph said next: “If you stand firm and hold your ground, in the long run you’ll win.”
That was once the case. It may not be the case today, especially if Governor Rauner and other anti-union politicians have their way. What the President didn’t mention is that Pullman porters did not win by themselves. They had support – considerable support – from other trade unionists, ministers, black newspapers, and, crucially, politicians. If we are to treat workers’ rights as civil rights, or simply acknowledge that workers should have the right to bargain collectively, then labor needs allies to step up in these still difficult times. That is also the story of Pullman and the subsequent struggles that followed.
The Pullman Monument may serve as a modest economic generator that creates relatively low-wage jobs in the tourist sector or even some better-paid local government jobs. If that’s all it does, then its potential will have been squandered. The members of the American Railway Union and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the countless men and women who made up the labor and civil rights movements, fought for so much more.