railroad workers into one big union without regard to craft or
class. Debs believed that he could unite skilled and unskilled
workers behind a more militant (and political) leadership than they
could get from the more conservative, mostly AFL-affiliated,
brotherhoods. The ARU attracted widespread sympathy and support from
IAM members, especially those employed against the Great Northern
Railroad, many members of the IAM, whose own strikes had failed
during these depressed years, flocked to join the ARU.
O'Connell naturally resented and resisted the invasion of the
IAM's membership. his opposition to Deb's brand of "industrial
unionism" was philosophic as well as practical. Having seen the
swift deterioration of the Knights of Labor he sincerely believed
that unionism had to be based on craft, that the strength of worker
organizations derived from the special skills, not the sheer numbers
of the members.
When Debs led a strike against the Pullman Company in Chicago
in May, 1894 many IAM members rallied in support of the walkout. The
ARU seemed to offer working people a stronger response than craft
unionism to the hated railroad bosses.
strike remains one of the landmarks in American labor history.
The workers in Pullman's factories had been squeezed into virtual
economic peonage. Company rules required them to live in company
houses and buy at company stores. Company police watched their every
move. Their long-smoldering animosity exploded when George Pullman
haughtily told them, "Workers have nothing to do with the
amount of wages they receive." In the strike that followed
Gompers and the AFL remained "neutral" but grass roots
support sprung up spontaneously among railroad workers on more than
twenty lines running out of Chicago. Within a month 125,000 workers,
including thousands of IAM members, joined a boycott against trains
hauling Pullman cars. One eminent labor historian, Selig Perlman,
has call the Pullman strike, " The only attempt ever made in
America of a revolutionary strike on the continental European
model." According to a later report in the Journal,
"Mobs destroyed Pullman cars, attacked strikebreakers, and
flouted the blanket injunction issued by the federal
The end result was the same as the Homestead
strike two years earlier. The superior economic power of the
employer was further strengthened by the political force of the
state. The strike was broken when President Grover Cleveland
dispatched federal troops to keep the mail cars moving. Debs was
sent to jail and the ARU was smashed. According to Pete Conlon, who
later wrote a series of memoirs about the early days for the Journal,
the Pullman strike not only destroyed the ARU, but "very
nearly wrecked the IAM as well."
Although the total defeat and destruction of the
industrially-organized ARU confirmed O'Connell's faith in craft
unionism, many members became radicalized, especially in the West.
Both in convention debates and in letters written to the Journal,
members freely voiced support for Socialist political action and
industrial unionism. Reflecting membership sentiment, the Grand
Lodge Convention in 1893 called for public ownership of railroads
and telegraph and telephone companies.
Opposition to industrial unionism became less rigid as new
technology continued to narrow the gap between machinists and
machine tenders. Increasingly, employers could substitute machine
tenders--who had to learn little more than which button to push and
which lever to pull--for journeymen who had invested years of
rigorous apprenticeship in learning their trade.
Changing conditions helped to persuade many journey men that
the IAM's stiff membership requirements would have to be relaxed.
Though the skills of specialists and helpers might be limited, they
were competing for machinists jobs. Moreover, with the new
technology, employers could break strikes by dividing the jobs of
journeymen into simple operations performed by specialists.
Gradually the barriers of exclusion gave way. The first to to, in
the IAM Constitution at least, was the color barrier.
Burying the Color Bar