George Pullman? My mind boggled. Our tax dollars are being spent to build a national park in tribute to a narcissistic, paternalistic, brutalistic 19th-century robber baron? Incredibly, yes. Pullman, a notorious union buster and exploiter of working families, is having his history mythologized by today’s Powers That Be, portraying him as a model of the corporate order’s historic virtue. At the Feb. 19 official consecration of Pullman’s park, Chicago’s thoroughly corporatized mayor, Rahm Emanuel, even gushed: “This will be a monument ... to Pullman’s role in building the American dream.”
“History,” as the old adage goes, “is written by the winners,” even when they’re losers as human beings. Pullman was most certainly a loser as a human being for this “dream,” as Rahm refers to it, was a nightmare to Pullman’s workers. They toiled in his factories making rail cars, including the luxury “Palace” sleeper for elite train travel. Pullman considered himself a beneficent employer, having built a 600-acre town for the workforce and vaingloriously naming the new home-place for himself. PullmanTown included houses he rented to his workers, churches, schools, a bank, library and parks – all owned by his company. Indeed, when officials announced this year that Pullman’s town was becoming an honored part of America’s park system, officials attested to his generosity by hailing the town as a place he created “to provide his employees a good life.”
The workers in the town of Pullman, however, were less charmed, for he ruled the burg as autocratically as he did his factories. No saloons or “agitators” were allowed, nor did he allow any public speeches, town meetings, independent newspapers or even open discussions. In a letter residents wrote to the American Railway Union, they offered an example of Pullman’s greed and exploitation of his workers: “Water which Pullman buys from the city at 8 cents a thousand gallons he retails to us at a 500-percent advance ... Gas which sells at 75 cents per thousand feet in Hyde Park just north of us, he sells for $2.25.”
The resentful residents created a little ditty that summed up the surreal feel of the place: “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman schools, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die, we shall go to Pullman hell.”
In 1894, the workers got Pullman’s hell on Earth. Not only did he drastically cut his workers’ (he referred to his workers condescendingly as his “children”) wages five times, he also refused to lower their rent. He had guaranteed a 6-percent return to the wealthy investors who financed the town, he explained – and the investors’ needs came first. What a dysfunctional father! The suffering imposed by this feudal lord on his workers led to the historic Pullman Strike that quickly spread nationwide, led by union icon Eugene Debs.
This uprising was not a problem for Lord George, though. He and other railroad royals rushed to the White House and got President Grover Cleveland to dispatch the U.S. Army to join police and militia forces to crush the labor rebellion. Thirty workers were killed, Debs was arrested on a trumped-up conspiracy charge and all laborers who’d joined the strike were fired and blacklisted.
Now, 120 years later, we taxpayers are financing a monument to this loser’s greed. The only way that Pullman National Monument can have any legitimacy is for the grounds to be strewn with sculptures of the 30 dead workers he killed.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.