The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America
“If America is indeed entering a new Gilded Age, then Jack Kelly’s The Edge of Anarchy should be read by those with a serious desire to avoid another civil war between workers, managers, owners, and the government.”
There are pithy bumper stickers that one sees every now and then that remind the general population that labor unions gave us the eight-hour day. It was the dirty, disheartened, yet fierce men—boilermakers, mechanics, mill workers, coal miners, and others—who struck for and eventually got business owners and the US federal government to recognize that workers have a right to a fair wage, a right to organize, and a right to have a home life.
Many of these victories can be traced back to 1894. Beginning in the planned community of Pullman, Illinois, workers for the Pullman company, which produced America’s most popular and luxurious sleeping cars for the railroads, went on strike.
The reasons for this agitation varied, but the main reason was that George Pullman, a hard-driving man who had become a millionaire based on his shrewd business sense and relentless ambition, had reduced wages while the country was embroiled in a major economic panic. His workers got less money and fewer hours as the price of basic commodities rose.
Author Jack Kelly tells this story with exhilaration. The Pullman strike of 1894 was not just another incident in the long-running labor versus capital conflict of the 19th century; it was the pivotal moment when the laissez-faire attitudes of Washington took a serious hit. Without the strike and the roving armies of unemployed men who walked to Washington, D.C., in order to agitate for infrastructure jobs (as a whole, these were called “Coxey’s Army”), the Progressive government of Theodore Roosevelt would have never been started. Without Theodore Roosevelt, there would have never been his cousin Franklin and his New Deal.
The Edge of Anarchy is a great read that utilizes biography in order to tell its story. The main characters are Pullman and labor leader Eugene Debs. Debs, a blue-eyed son of Alsatian immigrants who worked on Pullman cars until he became a labor organizer, became the all-American face of unionism in the United States. A generally conservative person, Debs would later come to see that only a totally unionized workforce was the sole answer to the wealth gap of the Gilded Age. Debs would later run for president as a Socialist. He earned almost one million votes in 1912 (then a sixth of the total voting percentage).
The Edge of Anarchy is a timely reminder that labor battles have long been a part of American history. Kelly’s book is not only a wonderful distillation of why the 1894 Pullman strike still matters, but it also presents an excellent overview of what life was like in 1894—full of technological promise, and yet riddled with class conflict and economic warfare.
If America is indeed entering a new Gilded Age, then Jack Kelly’s The Edge of Anarchy should be read by those with a serious desire to avoid another civil war between workers, managers, owners, and the government. Men like Debs and Pullman not only defined their era, but their offspring are still with us.