Today were our Pullman Strike debates. Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Governor Altgeld, Attorney General Olney, General Miles and the Federal Troops, George Pullman, the General Managers Association (GMA), Reverend Carwardine, and Pullman workers were at the table negotiating, something that never happened in 1894. The students spent this week gathering background information on their assigned person(s) and prepared short bios and issue positions to present. At the table they would also have the opportunity to rebut information, questions, ideas presented from the other negotiators. The Pullman strikes were probably the most significant strike in American history and our intention at the table was to see if it might have been averted had key players come together.
The most chilling was the presentation of George Pullman. As he built his argument about how the unions needed to be busted because the economy was so bad, it felt as if we were listening to Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker.
Governor Altgeld argued that the media was not telling the truth (also chilling), that the media was owned by people who supported George Pullman (in fact the McCormicks and Pullman were neighbors). Altgeld had labeled an editorial cartoon “LIES” in big bold letters, as an example of such media distortion, and passed it around the table. By the time it got to me, the word “LIES” had been crossed out and the word “TRUTH” written above it. The Reverend Carwardine had also put “Praise Jesus” in the corner and then signed his name.
George Pullman and members of the GMA came in suits and ties, with money coming out of their pockets. Near the end of the debate, the GMA was caught bribing the workers and Eugene Debs. Debs ate his bribe. (I’m not kidding.) One worker put her bribe into her pocket.
The students totally got into their characters. One Pullman worker, who had also stuffed a pillow beneath her shirt to look pregnant, made an awesome case supported with evidence and data about how badly treated she was in the “utopian” town of Pullman. Jane Addams broke down into tears as she tried to convince her friend George Pullman to soften his stance with the workers. The members of the GMA were tough and hard-nosed, totally arrogant and patronizing to Debs and the workers.
At the end of our negotiations, an order was given by the Attorney General and delivered to the federal troops to arrest Eugene Debs. Debs fled the classroom claiming she was running as a fugitive from the law.
OK, there were spots where the debate got a bit wild, but those spots clearly reflected the very same places where negotiations would have fallen apart if the real players had come to the table in 1894. Because the students, for the most part, stayed in character, it all felt very real. They were vested and engaged, the classroom alive and animated.
What made today’s debates even more visceral for me is that I am engaged in real negotiations for our next teacher contract. In fact, tonight we will be meeting with the administration for 4 hours after school. (We have been meeting every Thursday night for this amount of time.)
Maybe I ought to send Jane Addams, Governor Altgeld, Eugene Debs, and the workers into tonight’s negotiations. After all, they demonstrated today they have what it takes.