“History,” as the old adage goes, “is written by the winners.” Even though many “winners” are losers as human beings.
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For a clear example of this irony, check out the new National Monument to corporate greed created by our Park Service in Chicago. It’s on the site of what had been Pullman, a company town created by the feudalistic, 19th century profiteer, George Pullman. He amassed a fortune as a rail car manufacturer, infamously suppressing the wages of his 5,000 factory workers.
Yet, he considered himself a beneficent employer, having built a 600-acre town for the workforce and vaingloriously naming the new homeplace for himself. It included houses he rented to them, churches, schools, a bank, library, and parks – all owned by his company. Indeed, when officials announced this year that Pullman’s town was becoming an honored part of America’s park system, officials attested to his generosity by hailing it as a place he created “to provide his employees a good life.”
PullmanTown’s workers, however, were less charmed, for he ruled the burg as autocratically as he did his factories. No saloons or “agitators” were allowed, nor did he allow any public speeches, town meetings, independent newspapers, or even open discussions. Resentful residents created a little ditty that summed up the surreal feel of the place: “We are born in a Pullman House, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman schools, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die, we shall go to Pullman hell.”
In 1894, the workers got Pullman’s hell on Earth when he drastically cut their wages, but refused to lower their rent. He had guaranteed a six-percent return to the wealthy investors who financed the town, he explained – and their needs came first.