Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


Letter from America - 9

First appeared
Business Day
Thursday, 06 October 2011

There was a time when being white and working-class in Chicago was as bad as, if not worse than, being (for example) a black farm labourer in Alabama.

In the 1880s, railway tycoon George Pullman created a town to the south of Chicago that was billed as an urban utopia to house the employees of the Pullman railcar construction company and their families. He called it – in a fit of modesty – Pullman. It boasted libraries, churches, public parks, shopping boulevards and, the self-styled philanthropist claimed, it would be an idyllic working-class district where “strikes and other troubles that periodically convulse the world of labour need not be feared”.

Here, ostensibly, was a meeting of capitalist self-interest and worker self-interest: keep a readily-contained labour force happy, give them good living conditions, and they will be more productive. But there was something else in it for Pullman. His company owned every single building in the town and made a healthy profit on rentals and other charges.

When a nationwide recession hit the United States in 1894, Pullman laid off a third of his employees and cut wages by thirty percent – but refused to drop the rent on residential and retail buildings. The employees of Pullman were caught in a catch-22: they could no longer afford food and accommodation, but they weren’t allowed to move anywhere else. Poverty and deprivation became the standard way of life in Pullman.

The result was a railroad strike that rapidly became a nationwide protest under the leadership of labour rights crusader Eugene Debs – and grew into the single greatest industrial strike in American history. Pullman refused to back down and, in the end, lost a lot of money and almost all public support. He died, a much-hated man, in 1898.

The upshot of it all was that the Federal government started to pay a lot more attention to labour laws and to protecting workers – the demographic that would become, ultimately, the backbone of the US economy and would effectively mutate into the super-sized middle class of a consumer-driven society. One of America’s current economic problems, it is generally agreed, is that the country continues to consume but no longer produces (instead, it imports and borrows).

Still, being white and working-class in Chicago today is a whole lot better. In fact, for all the recession rhetoric and the statistics indicating growing unemployment and decreasing property ownership, strolling through the city’s architecturally-impressive city centre or its pleasant surrounding suburbs, you can’t see many signs of hard times. The worst that the denizens of Chicago have to face, it is tempting to suggest, is a major league baseball season in which both the White Sox and the Cubs have a losing record (as has happened in 2011).

Yet that is a little too easy. If you head a few miles further north of uptown Chicago, or further south of downtown Chicago, you see much starker living and working conditions – some of which are not entirely dissimilar to those experienced in Pullman over a century ago. The difference is, of course, that most of the residents in these communities are black, Hispanic or immigrant “others”.

The Pullman strike was an all-white affair. Around the same time that the members of the American Railway Union nobly voted in sympathy with the Pullman employees, they also took the ignoble step of officially excluding black workers from their ranks. As in South Africa, the exploitation of labour did not lead to solidarity between black and white workers; instead, race prejudice was a wedge that kept “poor whites” and “poor blacks” divided. This was made most evident when, in 1925, a group of “negro” railway porters began their own protest against the Pullman company, demanding equal wages irrespective of race.

Nowadays, the suburb of Pullman is one of Chicago’s predominantly black suburbs. Like many areas on the fringes of greater Chicago – as with the areas on the fringes of most American cities – it is the home of an economically marginalised population: a relatively poor demographic that, as America’s Gini coefficient grows, is decidedly not white and not working-class.



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