A MILITANT UNION goes out on strike, threatening to cripple the nation's transportation network. Incidents of violence ensue. Union leaders urge further negotiations. But the federal government intervenes, using troops to support non-striking workers. Union leaders find themselves in jail, while their followers--fired as a group-- begin seeking new jobs. The strike has been broken.

At this point, there is little comfort to be gained by comparing the air controllers' strike and the events--alluded to above--which occurred 87 years ago. That was when American Railway Union workers led by Eugene V. Debs brought national railroading to a standstill. Once the Debs union voted to strike against George Pullman's railroad-car-building company, more than 150,000 workers throughout the railroad industry joined them.

As in the PATCO dispute, railroad managers including those from the Pullman company--refused to negotiate with the strikers (though, unlike PATCO, the ARU workers had not violated a "no-strike" pledge in walking off their jobs). The Pullman strike occurred during the second year of a national business depression that had resulted in layoffs of a number of company employees and wage cuts of up to one-third for the remainder.

Railroad officials appealed for federal help in crushing the strike, which centered in Chicago. Such assistance arrived in July, despite bitter opposition from the Illinois governor (a pro-union reformer). The attorney general (formerly a railroad lawyer) obtained a court injunction banning as illegal any strike activity or interference with railroad property. President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops, citing the need to protect U.S. mail service on the trains. Meanwhile, Eugene Debs and other key ARU leaders were tried, convicted and sent off to jail.

Although the Pullman strike and the PATCO walkout differ markedly in both particulars and context, the earlier clash poses at least one dismal, nagging thought for today. The real ordeal of the Pullman strikers began only after the troops had left and "order" had returned to the railroad system. Then, railway union members found themselves unemployed and blacklisted, destitute pariahs in an overstocked labor force. In the Depression years that followed, the ordinary striker wandered the country seeking basic sustenance and work, unlike his leaders, whose imprisonment nurtured a highly visible "martyrdom" for the union ideal. Although PATCO members may manage to avoid similar deprivation, the credit will be due largely to the American economy's improved capacity for absorbing the unemployed with skills to offer, not to any greater wisdom in labor-management showdowns than that displayed a century ago.