1894 was a wild year in the United States. Robber barons and the sycophantic politicians they controlled worked overtime to maintain and expand their empires of capital. Their practices and greed had helped create a recession that left millions of working people struggling to keep shelter and food for their families. The response of most of the capitalist class was to reduce workers’ wages. Labor organizers were afraid to push back too hard for fear of losing the few gains they had achieved when the economy was more flush.
One industry stood above the rest. One industry wielded more power than any of the others. That industry was the railroads. Congress passed legislation granting them land and right of way through territories already settled by the white man and territories still being stolen from the original inhabitants. Laws were passed to facilitate the railroads’ profit margin and to lessen competition. Corruption, greed and blood defined the industry. Capitalists in other associated and non-associated enterprises took cues from the captains of the rails.
One man in particular understood the nature of the business. His name was George W. Pullman. His business made sleeping cars. Luxurious to travel in, the cars were the standard to attain in passenger rail travel. Extra springs assured a smoother ride and a comfortable sleep. Porters were specially trained to serve the needs of passengers in these cars. Virtually every train line used Pullman’s cars. His monopoly was almost complete.
He wasn’t all greed, though. He hired African-American men as porters—a bold move for the time. The workers who built his cars lived in a town built by Pullman that featured social activities and intellectual pursuits, but no bars or pool halls. In short, Pullman’s views regarding working men were similar to many people involved in the nascent Progressive movement of the period. Improvement of the human through better health practices and intellectual stimulation were key elements of this philosophy. Doing this not only improved the workforce, it improved the capitalists’ profits.
However, all was not well in Pullman’s paradise. As the recession deepened, his desire to maintain a high level of profit meant that he would reduce wages, raise rents in the company town and lay off workers. As this scenario intensified, the workers began to consider some kind
of labor action. Many of them had already joined a new and fast growing association of workers known as the American Railway Union (ARU). A response to the abuse of labor by the bosses and a refusal by the craft unions to support this group of workers, the ARU was open to almost anyone who worked on the railroad; anyone, that is but the Black porters. That racism would come back to haunt the union in the months ahead. In the meantime, however, thanks in large part to the efforts of union organizer Eugene Debs, the ARU was quickly becoming one of the largest unions in the United States. Indeed, as the situation in the Pullman factory simmered slowly to a boil, the ARU was riding high on a victory against the Great Northern Railroad.
So, when it became clear that the Pullman management was not going to bend on the demands put forth by the factory workers, the ARU rank and file was ready to support them. Despite Debs’s concerns, the vote to strike was overwhelming. Given that the union was a democratic union run by its members, Debs jumped on board and began working to coordinate and build that labor action.
This is the setting of Jack Kelly’s recently published book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America. A journalist and historian, Kelly has written a riveting tale of human strength and unity in the face of arrogance and greed. In doing so, he examines the nature of monopoly capital and its undue power. He provides a history of an unholy bond between politicians and Wall Street. It is a bond that continues to determine the future of the United States and the world. Simultaneously, his text makes clear it is a bond that working men and women can and must challenge to make their lives worth living. Even in defeat, the knowledge that one struggled for what is right makes their life worthwhile.
The Edge of Anarchy is both the history of a strike and biography of the an organizer. Kelly does not turn Debs into a hero, but acknowledges in his telling that his role in the Pullman strike was heroic. Furthermore, it gives the reader a biography of Debs before he became a socialist and provides some of the reasons why he did. A page-turner that reads like a top notch novel, Kelly’s book is a significant tale of arrogance and privilege versus struggle and solidarity.