The annual Pullman debates were today. The students take on the roles of Jane Addams, Eugene Debs (founder of the ARU-American Railway Union), George Pullman, Pullman Workers, the GMA (General Managers Association- a group of Railroad CEOs), Governor Altgeld, Rev. William Carwardine, General Miles and the Federal Troops, and Attorney General Olney.
We create a simulation where all these players come to the table in July 1894 to try to resolve the strike and its ensuing violence. These debates can get rather spirited and passionate. Today the afternoon class was a bit more inspired than their morning counterparts. During the debates, one worker fell sick from lack of warmth and food in her shelter in Pullman and died during the rebuttals to great dramatic effect. The Federal Troops moved her body to a space beneath the window. The student playing Attorney General Olney shouted, “Cheap tricks such as this death will not move us.”
“Pullman is a job creator,” the GMA announced. During the caucus after all the issue presentations, Pullman began the shout, “We are the 1%.” (S)he was joined in this chant by her supporters— General Miles, Attorney General Olney, and the GMA. When one of the workers complained about his living conditions in Pullman, General Miles responded, “Well at least you have living conditions.”
“Unions tie the hands of industry preventing the full flowering of capitalism which reduces our profit making potential,” the GMA exploded. “Everyone loses then.”
Debs rebutted, quoting himself (from the packet of resource materials each character received), “Those who produce should have, but we know that those who produce the most— that is, those who work hardest, and at the most difficult and most menial tasks, have the least.” And then they (two or three people play each part) added in their own words, “That’s why unions are important. When workers unite together they have a voice and power to bring fairness to wages and working conditions.”
“You call profit-reduction fair? Certainly not fair to me!” George Pullman just shook his and her head.
At the end of the debates, after rebuttals and closing arguments, I handed back their research papers. As a group of them left the room, I heard them chant as they drifted into the hallway, ”ARU-Who are you?; GMA- All the way” which was met by “GMA-Takes our pay; ARU-We’re not through.”
The debates didn’t really resolve any of the Pullman issues. There was no energy or vision to compromise, only to stand one’s ground at all costs. There were no solutions; there was no consensus. But the kids seemed pretty engaged, committed, and invested. It was quite clear to them that the rhetoric of the Gilded Age, though existing over a hundred years ago, seemed quite relevant to the issues we are grappling with right now.
In fact, Reverend Carwardine stopped me before she left the room with a “gotcha” look on her face, and said, “Didn’t you say earlier in the year that history doesn’t really repeat itself?”