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After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman.

After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman. By Susan Eleanor Hirsch (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003. x plus 292 pp. $44.95).

As Susan Hirsch points out at the beginning of her impressive study, workers at the Pullman Company make two dramatic appearances in the annals of American history. The first, of course, comes during the violent strike of 1894, and the second with the incarnation of the influential Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), an important harbinger of the civil rights movement. In After the Strike, Hirsch seeks to fill in the void around these two momentous happenings--to provide a detailed history of a century of labor relations at the Pullman Company. Beyond an impulse to further contextualize the 1894 strike and the struggles of the BSCP, Hirsch also subtly aims to offer something akin to the synthesis that has so eluded labor historians for the past several decades. Her study focuses on one company, but Pullman's tentacles reached far across the country. Its luxury sleeping cars could be found on every major passenger rail line, and it operated manufacturing and repair facilities not only in Chicago, but also in Atlanta, Buffalo, St. Louis, and Richmond, CA, among other places. Pullman employed a large and diverse workforce, including significant numbers of African-Americans and women--workers whose experiences are of particular interest to Hirsch. As such, the Pullman Company offers a unique microcosm through which to examine U.S. labor history. What Hirsch finds is a complicated picture in which employee aspirations often fell victim to clever company policies of dividing labor by skill, race, and gender--and appealing to workers through welfare programs and company unions. Meanwhile trade unions, often fighting each other more than battling Pullman, proved of limited benefit to workers.

Hirsch begins with patriarch George Pullman and his determination to keep unions at bay by means of an "environmental" strategy. The author recounts the familiar but fascinating story of Pullman's drive to monopolize the sleeping car industry and control employees by means of his company town on Lake Calumet, fourteen miles south of Chicago. When Pullman's plan crashed on the shoals of the bitter 1894 strike, company officials shifted to a subtler strategy of dividing and conquering. Less-skilled immigrant workers arrived, and the company began a long-standing policy of hiring African-Americans in certain positions. Eager to employ more black workers, Pullman helped sponsor the Great Migration by financially supporting the Urban League. Gender also served to segment and control workers. Low-paid, single women hired to fill out Pullman's secretarial staff found themselves quickly replaced when they married. Meanwhile, company officials introduced a host of welfare capitalism benefits from sports teams to lavatories to locker/changing rooms. Hirsch echoes scholars such as Stanford Jacoby in concluding that such programs were highly effective counters to the threat of unions.

Despite company efforts, workers remained interested in unionization--although certainly not broad cross-racial, cross-gender unions. The state, Hirsch argues, served effectively in facilitating such aspirations. World War I, during which parts of Pullman were nationalized and other divisions came under the control of the National War Labor Board, eventually brought the first union contracts to Pullman. After the war, as was the case around the country, Pullman officials battled to reassert control, and workers angrily went on strike, eventually meeting defeat. The company then rededicated itself to its policy of segmentation, hiring more blacks and, as a means of controlling labor, even integrating key departments at a facility in Atlanta. While the counteroffensive failed to stem the rise of the BSCP in the 1920s, Pullman workers remained hopelessly divided.

Even a sea change as dramatic as the New Deal failed to further the cause of unionization. Defying national trends, the Pullman Company, which suffered severely from a drastic reduction in ridership during the Depression, fended off increasingly militant organizational drives by retaining welfare benefits and expanding company unions. Hirsch's depiction of the Pullman Car Employes Association of the Repair Shops (PCEARS), a successful company union established in 1934, is particularly illuminating. While not fundamentally challenging company control, PCEARS was hardly a puppet of management. In fact, the company union fought vigilantly to achieve real gains in areas such as health and safety. PCEARS even used the looming threat of a CIO-Steel Workers Organizing Committee drive to wring concessions from the company.

Again it was state intrusion accompanying another world war that brought further organizing gains to Pullman. The familiar saga of women and blacks taking industrial jobs (with substantial white resistance) played out at Pullman in much the same way it occurred elsewhere. During the war, the AFL and CIO battled each other viciously to gain the upper hand organizing Pullman's workers. But in the end, no union won a majority of employees. No "cohesive union movement" emerged from wartime conditions, although most (and by 1950 all) Pullman employees joined a diverse array of unions (184). Still, increasing unionization failed to bring substantial changes for women or minorities, who remained locked in certain jobs.

By the late 1940s, the U.S. railroad industry was in decline. Passenger traffic began to fall off precipitously. Here Hirsch makes a substantial contribution to our growing understanding of the early process of deindustrialization. We learn of union strategies to help workers cope with down-sizing and of the role of government programs such as the 1936 Washington Agreement, providing workers with allowances based on length of service. By 1981, when Pullman closed the last of its manufacturing plants there was little left for workers but a lonely, unsuccessful "save-our-jobs" campaign.

While the reader only occasionally gains a glimpse of the individual worker behind the generalizations, Hirsch offers a substantial work of scholarship, loaded with insight into the amalgam of class, race, and gender that shaped late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial relations. In the end, the author suggests by way of summary that the story of Pullman's workers represents not "one struggle but many." Nevertheless a clear theme of largely successful company strategies to segment workers and the inadequacy of U.S. trade unions does emerge. One gathers that these lessons apply well beyond the experience of Pullman's workers.

Edmund F. Wehrle

Eastern Illinois University
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Author:Wehrle, Edmund F.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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