When factory workers at the Pullman Palace Car Co. walked off the job in 1894, their strike led to the national recognition of Labor Day. That recognition came at a sacrifice, however: The factory workers’ strike was crushed by U.S. Army troops. And in the short term, they didn’t see their working conditions significantly improve.
This Labor Day — more than a century after the 1894 Pullman factory strike — Pullman residents and supporters, members of the National Park Service and government officials including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland gathered in Pullman for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication of the Pullman National Monument visitor center and factory grounds.
“The book of American history has many important chapters with Chicago at the forefront,” Lightfoot said in a speech Monday. “And with the opening of this visitor center, another important chapter in that book is being written.”
The national monument — Chicago’s first — is the culmination of more than 50 years of neighborhood efforts to preserve, protect and highlight Pullman’s history and distinctive architecture, in addition to significant public and private financial investment and government cooperation.
President Barack Obama first designated the Pullman Historic District a national monument in 2015. Monday’s ceremony took place a year after a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site on Labor Day 2020.
In 1894, Pullman factory workers struck when, after an economic depression, George Pullman decreased their wages but refused to decrease their rent in his planned company town.
Decades later, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph, became the first Black union to win a collective bargaining agreement with a major U.S. company. The Pullman porters had been barred from joining the 1894 strike because the American Railway Union, which came in to represent the Pullman factory workers, had earlier voted to exclude Black workers from joining the union.
The Pullman porters also played an important role in the civil rights movement. Porters carried Black newspapers like the Chicago Defender to distribute — in secret — as they moved from city to city on the railroads.
“Marginalized communities have always been a part of the struggle for workers’ rights, from women and children working in the factories, to immigrants working in the fields, to the free African Americans who were hired to work as porters,” Haaland, a former Teamster, said in her keynote address Monday.
Haaland said she was thinking of her grandparents — her grandfather, a diesel train mechanic, and her grandmother, who led a team of women who cleaned diesel train engines, “and thus keep the trains running on time.”
“The holiday of Labor Day has its roots right here,” Bob Reiter, the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said during his speech at Monday’s dedication. “And I don’t just mean right here in Chicago. Literally right here, in Pullman.”
Reiter noted what he described as the tensions between honoring workers and taking concrete steps to support workers. He urged ceremony attendees to respect the picket lines of Teamsters, auto mechanics and bakery workers at Nabisco.
“So please, I urge you, as you step into this beautiful national monument, remember the struggle of workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and take real, concrete steps to support workers in the 21st century,” Reiter said.
Earlier in the holiday weekend, a neighborhood-wide celebration marked the official opening of the visitor center and renovated grounds, with guided tours of the neighborhood and visitor center. Amtrak carried three original “palace cars” — the luxurious train cars produced by Pullman factory workers — into Chicago for the weekend.
For some Pullman residents and supporters, the dedication represented an exciting, emotional step for a community that has been fighting for national recognition for decades.
“I think it’s magnificent,” said Patty Lawson, who said she had lived in the neighborhood since 1985. She was “proud to be a Pullmanite,” she added.
“I can’t think of any place else I’d want to live.”