Many working people across the United States are enjoying a three-day weekend thanks to Labor Day. But sadly, it has become more of a retail holiday and a marker for the end of summer than a celebration of workers and organized labor. Even those who do honor workers and unions rarely explore the historical links between the Pullman Strike of 1894 and the black Pullman porters who could not strike—because they weren’t allowed in a whites-only union.
In 1867, Chicago industrialist George Pullman revolutionized rail travel with his famous Pullman Cars.
When a Pullman Car was leased to a railroad, it came “equipped” with highly-trained porters to serve the travelers. The cars were staffed with recently freed slaves, whom Pullman judged to be skilled in service and willing to work for low wages. Soon, The Pullman Rail Car Company was the largest employer of blacks in the country, with the greatest concentration of Pullman Porters living on Chicago’s South Side.
Labor Day was nationally established after the Pullman Strike of 1894 when President Grover Cleveland sought to win political points by honoring dissatisfied railroad workers. This strike did not include porters or conductors on trains, but for the black porters, racism fueled part of the workers’ dissatisfaction, and was never addressed.
In their home neighborhoods, to be a Pullman Porter was considered a prestigious position. The job offered a steady income, an opportunity to travel across America, and a life largely free of heavy physical labor, rare for blacks in that era. Historian Timuel Black recounts, “They were good looking, clean and immaculate in their dress, their style was quite manly, their language was very carefully crafted, so that they had a sense of intelligence about them … they were good role models for young men.”
But the porters were also mistreated, underpaid, overworked and subjected to countless indignities on the job. “A Pullman Porter was really kind of a glorified hotel maid and bellhop in what Pullman called a hotel on wheels,” explains former porter and historian Greg LeRoy. ” The Pullman Company just thought of the porters as a piece of equipment, just like another button on a panel – the same as a light switch or a fan switch.” Pullman demanded 400 hours a month or 11,000 miles – sometimes as much as 20 hours at a stretch — and paid ridiculously low wages (in 1926, an average of $810 per year — about $7,500 in today’s economy). “It didn’t pay a livable wage, but they made a living with the tips that they got, because the salary was nothing, ” says Lyn Hughes of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum. The company expected its employees to pay for their own meals, supply their own uniforms and shoe polish, and allowed them only short naps on couches in the smoking car. Disgruntled porters began to question their situation and decided to take on the enormously powerful company.
In 1925, the porters formed a union called The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. This marked the beginning of a twelve-year struggle for dignity, better working conditions, and fair pay. (Its leaders were charismatic black activist A. Philip Randolph and former porter Milton Webster, head of the Chicago union local.) Their eventual triumph marked the first time in American history that a black union forced a powerful corporation to the negotiating table. It was a significant step forward for black equality.
The union members learned how to organize and negotiate. They discovered that even in a time of great prejudice in America, blacks could effect change if they stood together and persevered. They would later apply these techniques to the civil rights movement.