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Fire Guts Pullman Works Structure

December 3, 1998

CHICAGO (AP) _ Authorities have charged a man with arson after a fire destroyed the last remaining structure of the Pullman Works, the railroad factory where a key battle in the American labor movement was fought 100 years ago.

The factory once was famous for its elegant railroad cars, and the company was also at the heart of a dispute that increased the status of black workers. The neighborhood itself was once a city created and owned by the company.

``It all started there,″ said Leslie Orear, president of the Illinois Labor History Society. ``You can’t talk about history of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, or even the Democratic Party without talking about Pullman.″

An extra-alarm fire Tuesday night tore through the 220,000 square-foot administration building that was the capitol of George M. Pullman’s empire beginning in the 1880s, toppling its landmark clock tower and collapsing the roof.

Police charged a man with arson Wednesday. Anthony Buzinskas had been in custody since Tuesday night, when authorities found him at the scene of the fire, said police spokesman Pat Camden.

He would not elaborate on what led to the charges.

The building has been empty since Amtrak stopped manufacturing sleeping cars there in 1982, but it served as anchor of the historic Pullman district on Chicago’s South Side. The state of Illinois bought the building in 1990, in hopes it could be turned into a museum and shopping center.

Several million dollars in state and federal grants had been put into the Pullman site since then, but tens of millions of dollars more would have been required to complete the museum plan, said David Blanchette, a spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Society.

Thousands of tourists visit the neighborhood each year, mostly to see the architecture of the community Pullman designed to house workers from the new factory complex he began building in 1880. On empty land south of Chicago, the sleeping car mogul built one of the finest 19th century company towns _ with comfortable homes for some 2,500 workers, schools, parks, churches, and even an elegant hotel.

Although the homes were not large, their harmonious red-brick architecture, reminiscent of Baltimore or Philadelphia rowhouses, offered a charming relief from the chaos of early Chicago.

Pullman, the man, was hailed as a benevolent industrialist; and Pullman, the neighborhood, was annexed by Chicago in 1889 as the jewel of the South Side.

But when a recession hit in 1893, Pullman cut wages at his plant while leaving rents in his community at their boomtime level. The workers rebelled, and about half of the 6,300 workers went on strike. Pullman responded by locking them out.

The American Railway Union, under the leadership of Eugene Debs, then refused to handle any trains containing Pullman cars.

The railroads countered that move by coupling mail cars to Pullman cars, and President Grover Cleveland, over the loud protests of his fellow Democrat, Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld, ordered federal troops onto the trains to ensure that the mail got through.

``There was a great deal of violence around the country, but none in Pullman itself,″ Orear said. About 13 people were killed before the strike collapsed in August.

Debs, who was jailed for his role in the strike, quit the union and became head of the Socialist Party. Altgeld went behind the scenes to purge Cleveland’s supporters from Democratic Party leadership and shift the once-conservative party to a pro-union stance.

The second Pullman labor struggle was a longer and less spectacular affair, but it resulted in a victory for the union and increased status for black workers.

Pullman had begun hiring freed slaves to work as porters and attendants in his cars as early as 1867, possibly choosing them because they would work for low wages.

Those wages were still low in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph made his first efforts to unionize the porters, despite the company’s opposition to organized labor.

But by holding secret meetings, at times using porters’ wives’ tea parties as cover, Randolph prevailed. His Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters signed a contract with Pullman on Aug. 25, 1937 _ one of the first substantive victories for black workers.

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