CHICAGO (PAI) – Speaking just a few blocks from where he started his career as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, President Obama used the Feb. 19 dedication of the Pullman Park National Historic Site to tout workers’ rights.
The park is in the heart of the historic Pullman community, originally a “company town” founded by Pullman Palace Car Co., CEO George Pullman, where workers – in the words of one folk song “lived in the Pullman house, shopped at the Pullman store, worked at the Pullman plant and when they died, they went to the Pullman hell.”
That song is a reference to Pullman’s treatment of his workers, then virtually all white, when the 1893 recession hit: Layoffs for many, 50 percent wage cuts for the rest – but no cut in prices and no change in working conditions at the sleeping car plant.
His actions forced the strike by the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, which spread nationwide. Conservative pro-business Democratic President Grover Cleveland, at the request of Pullman and other “robber barons” to call out troops – over the protests of pro-worker Democratic Gov. John Peter Altgeld – to bust the strike.
Obama cited that history in his speech, and added later history when the town of Pullman, and the company workforce, became majority-African American. The still-bad conditions in turn led to the formation of the first majority African-American union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, by legendary and influential labor leader A. Phillip Randolph. His union is now a sector of the Transportation Communications Union/Machinists.
After devoting only a paragraph and a half of his speech to George Pullman, Obama concentrated on the workers – and the movement for workers’ rights, then and now.
“Pullman slashed his workers’ pay; some saw their wages fall dramatically,” Obama explained. “Pullman didn’t take a pay cut himself and he didn’t lower the rents in his company town. So his workers organized for better pay and better working and living conditions. A strike started here in Pullman, and it spread across the country. Federal troops were called to restore order; and in the end, more than 30 workers were killed.
“Eventually, they returned to their jobs. But the idea they sparked, the idea of organizing and collectively bargaining, couldn’t be silenced. Could not be silenced,” he said to applause. Six days after the strike ended, Congress established Labor Day. “And gradually, our country would add protections that we now take for granted: A 40-hour work week, the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplace conditions, and the right to organize for higher wages and better opportunities.
“So this site is at the heart of what would become America’s labor movement — and as a consequence, at the heart of what would become America’s middle class. And bit by bit, we expanded this country’s promise to more Americans. But too many” – the African-Americans — “still lived on the margins of that dream.”
“Rights were not extended to the black porters who worked on these cars — the former slaves, and sons and grandsons who made beds and carried luggage and folded sheets and shined shoes. And they worked as many as 20 hours a day on less than three hours’ sleep just for a couple dollars a day.
“Porters who asked for a living wage, porters who asked for better hours or better working conditions were told they were lucky to have a job at all. If they continued to demand better conditions, they were fired. It seemed hopeless to try and change the status quo.”
So they organized the Brotherhood in 1925, with Randolph leading the way, the president said. Randolph said the union would make each worker “the master of your economic fate,” Obama noted. And he laid out a strategy for all workers: “If you stand firm and hold your ground, in the long run you’ll win.”
“That was easier said than done,” the President commented. “Over the years, Brotherhood leaders and supporters were fired, they were harassed. But true to A. Philip Randolph’s call, they stood firm, they held their ground. And 12 years to the day after A. Philip Randolph spoke in that hall in Harlem, they won, and Pullman became the first large company in America to recognize a union of black workers.” He called that one of the first great victories of the civil rights movement.
Randolph and the Brotherhood didn’t stop there, the president said. They forced FDR to issue an executive order integrating the defense industry during World War II – lest FDR face a mass March on Washington. And Pullman porters provided the clout to convince President Harry S Truman to desegregate the armed forces, helped lead the Montgomery bus boycott and – thanks to Randolph and labor — organized the 1963 March on Washington.
“We are the advanced guard,” Randolph told that crowd, “of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom,” Obama said. “That’s not just the story of a movement, that’s the story of America. Because as Americans, we believe that workers’ rights are civil rights,” he declared, and was again interrupted by applause.
“Dignity and opportunity aren’t just gifts to be handed down by a generous government or by a generous employer. They are rights given by God, as undeniable and worth protecting as the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains.
“And that’s why, throughout our history, we’ve marched not only for jobs, but also for justice; not just for the absence of oppression, but for the presence of opportunity. Ultimately, that wasn’t just for African Americans any more than the original Pullman union was just for white workers. Eventually, that principle would be embraced on behalf of women, and Latinos, and Native Americans; for Catholics and Jews and Muslims; for LGBT Americans; for Ameri-cans with mental and physical disabilities. That’s the idea that was embodied right here.
Photo: Obama speaks Feb. 19 on Chicago’s South Side. | Evan Vucci/AP