The 1890s Crisis in Context: The Pullman Strike, Labor Politics and the New Liberalism

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Richard Schneirov, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore, eds., The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999, Pp. 258, $49.95 cloth, $18.95 paper); Richard Schneirov, Labor and Urban Politics: Class Conflict and the Origins of Modern Liberalism in Chicago, 1864-97 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998, Pp. viii, 390. Cloth, $49.95; paper, $21.95.)

The 1890s have long been considered one of the critical turning points in American history. The rise and fall of Populism, the severity of the economic depression, the crushing of so many labor struggles, black disfranchisement and the consolidation of Jim Crow in the South, the emergence of the United States as an imperial power, and the political realignment of 1898 have been staples of historical writings for decades. Two new books highlighting the interplay between the labor movement and the state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are largely framed around these decisive transformations. The first, The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics, is an extremely useful and readable collection of essays that focuses as much on the meanings, origins, and impact of the Pullman conflict as it does on the actual strike and boycott.'

Editors Schneirov, Stromquist, and Salvatore provide the basic overview of the Pullman strike in a clear introduction, while Robert E. Weir finds that the 1890 New York Central Strike constituted a "dress rehearsal for the Pullman debacle four years later." (p.21) Susan E. Hirsch offers a broader perspective on the strike, analyzing the forces that promoted unity and fostered division in the failed 1894 conflict and comparing them to those in the much larger but also unsuccessful 1922 railroad shop workers strike. The crucial community-based support offered Chicago's Pullman workers in 1894 - and the absence of such support in Pullman's Wilmington, Delaware, shops - had given way some three decades later to strikes directed by national unions, enabling Wilmington workers to participate actively in a way they could not before. Victoria Brown's essay, "Advocate for Democracy," concentrates on settlement house reformer Jane Addams's role in attempting to mediate the strike. Addams, Brown insists, was no "timid, temporizing member of the middle class," (p.131) as one biographer long ago suggested; rather, her vision of the democratic process and commitment to the "whole community" (p.140) led her to fear the consequences of adversarial labor upheavals and to believe that "conflict could be resolved with harmony." (p.149)

In the collection's most provocative essay, Melvyn Dubofsky argues that a reconsideration of the 1894 Pullman strike "invites a rethinking of the relationship between labor and the law." (p.159) Dubofsky takes exception to much new scholarship on this relationship which suggests that the law had a decisive impact on the development of workers' movements in the late nineteenth century. Did the "discourse of legal culture ... construct a reality that simultaneously diluted labor's power and caused workers to parrot the words uttered from the bench"? (p.160). Dubofsky answers no, arguing that the discourse of jurisprudence did not just function to repress and direct labor's development as external, autonomous force but rather reflected the "beliefs and values that resonated through broader spheres of popular culture." (p.161) Judges' belief in employers' rights over their own property, the individual workers' right to labor on whatever terms they chose, and the "public's right to be protected when labor and capital clashed" reflected a widely shared "civic republicanism" that held that the "community (the public interest) had rights (interests) that must be protected against the selfish claims of organized private interest groups" and that "individuals retained inalienable rights that neither the community nor the state could impair. …