Revision Street: Tom Shepherd (IV)

Revision Street: Tom Shepherd (IV)

Tom Shepherd, local historian and go-getter, has been fighting Wal-Mart’s intended move into his historic Pullman neighborhood. To Shepherd, the runs counter to the area’s connection to the early days of the American labor movement, but the big box store has a in common with Pullman’s idea of a company town.

This neighborhood of course was built by George Pullman. He came out here with a grand vision in 1882. Most of the homes around here were remarkably built up within a year or two. At that time it was quite an achievement, and was heralded throughout the country, indeed throughout the world, as a real accomplishment that an industrialist was building a model town for his employees.

(photo by Kristi Logan)

His vision was to build a place that was appealing visually and had some of the grandest amenities for lowly factory workers during his time. But that experiment hardly has ever worked in history, to own the company that people make their wages from and to own the store in the neighborhood. Market Hall was right around here and he had an arcade building just a block from here, which unfortunately no longer stands, but it was like a forerunner to modern day indoor shopping malls.

It was really something, but it just didn’t work to have your boss having so much control over you. In the 1890s we went through, ah I think it was considered a depression at the time or a severe recession. The orders for railroad cars dropped and people had to be laid off or fired. Mr. Pullman didn’t lower the rents on people and didn’t lower food prices, so therefore folks just didn’t have anywhere else to go for jobs. Finally things turned and he began to put people back to work, but a lot of them still weren’t able to keep up because he lowered wages when we took people back. That’s what spurred the strike of 1894.

That was the first major national strike. The railway strike occurred in 1894, and there were other individual strikes around the country but this was the beginning of the modern labor movement, where we had broad geographical collective bargaining. That’s why this community is so significant. A week from Saturday we’re hosting a Phillip Randolph Society Institute local chapter here. A number of years ago I began to chair a group that would host annual Labor Day discussions and last year it was really enormous. We had a couple thousand people and the endorsement and participation of the Chicago Federation of Labor and the state AFL-CIO. It was quite an extravaganza. During the heyday of unions, of course there were tens of thousands of steel workers that lived in the Southeast area of the city. I belong to the retired steel workers chapter on the East Side and we still have a good strong group with an activist bent. We jump on the bus if we have to and go down to Springfield, or go down to city hall when need be.

Not to mention that today we have a lot of tours coming through here. People from all over—Japan, China, Germany, England, they know more about labor history in this country than people do in this country. We host tours through the Illinois Labor History Society. So this is a neighborhood that’s proud of its history.

Comparisons have been drawn between Pullman and Wal-Mart. When we had the Wal-Mart employee here, they talked about how sometimes they’re compensated or rewarded with some type of shopping coupons to shop at Wal-Mart. I’m sure Wal-Mart would be delighted if their employees all did all of their shopping at Wal-Mart. They are encouraged to do that. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are forced to do that, in a sense.