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The Pullman Strike


This VOXPOP is set in Chicago in 1894, during the Pullman Strike. Students take on the roles of Executives, Union Workers, ARU Allies and Non-Union Workers. After being introduced to the situation, students work with other members of their group to define their values.

Students then debate and vote on three key issues:

Pay - Who gets to decide what a fair wage is?

Housing - Should a company control how its workers live?

Management - Who gets to make decisions in the workplace?

At the end of the VOXPOP, an epilogue video lays out what actually happened.


Role-plays take roughly 60-90 minutes for a class to play through. To run the role-play over multiple days, use the link VOXPOP will send you to re-open your session.

Create a different session for each class that you intend to use this role-play with.

Not sure how sessions work? Feel free to create a session and step through it to get a feel for the role-play. You can create as many sessions as you need.



The VOXPOP software will deliver this content to students during the role-play. Use this outline to familiarize yourself with the content of the scenario, the roles students will be assigned and the choices they will be asked to make.


Students: 6 to 50

Running Time: 60-80 minutes (the role-play can be broken into multiple sessions)



This video provides historical context.


Students are assigned to the following groups:


Executives fear that the recession will shut the Pullman company down. Workers don't understand that in lean times, we all have to tighten our belts!

Union Workers

Union Workers want better pay and working conditions. They say it's unfair for the Pullman Company to make millions while its workers live off pennies!

ARU Allies

ARU Allies say that the Pullman Company has too much control over workers' lives: not only through wages, but also overpriced housing and abusive bosses!

Non-Union Workers

Non-Union Workers include African Americans and immigrants who were rejected by the American Railway Union (ARU). If Union Workers don't like their jobs, Non-Union Workers are happy to take them!


These videos will provide students with more detailed background on specific issues.

Who should have the power to decide what a fair wage is?
Proposals students consider:

Wages set at market rates

The Pullman Company sets worker wages at market rates – high enough to compete with other companies, but no higher.

Wages set by Pullman/ARU deal

Worker wages will be set by a committee that includes Pullman executives, government officials, and union reps.

How much power should companies have over their workers' private lives?
Proposals students consider:

No evicting Pullman workers

Pullman workers who don't pay their rent can stay in their Pullman housing as long as they keep working for the company.

Town residents pick businesses

Residents of Pullman Town get to vote on what businesses and special services come to their town.

How much power should workers have over their bosses?
Proposals students consider:

Company oversees foremen

Pullman executives use their own judgment to hire and fire company foremen.

Formal complaint system

Create an official channel for workers to report abusive foremen to higher-level managers at Pullman.


A short video that lets students know what really happened.


Here are a few suggested discussion questions to pose at the end of the role-play.  Please feel free to use your own.

  • Do you think that companies have too much power over their workers today?

  • Are unions a good way to balance company and worker power?



Jenny Lim

Mattia Romeo

Greg Trefry

Matthew Wilding

Testing & Evaluation

Camillia Matuk

Talia Hurwich


Jack Kelly, The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, St. Martin's Press, 2019.

Liston Edgington Leyendecker, Palace Car Prince: A Biography of George Mortimer Pullman, University Press of Colorado, 1992.

Richard Schneirov (editor), The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: Essays on Labor and Politics, University of Illinois Press, 1999.


Library of Congress

Chicago History Museum

Newberry Library

American Business History Center

Wikimedia Commons

Special Thanks

Tamara Gordon

Raquel Solorzano-Dueñas

Thalia Wood

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