The beginning of organized labor

By — on / Daily, Negotiation Skills

The Clearinghouse at PON offers hundreds of role simulations, from two-party, single-issue negotiations to complex multi-party exercises. The Pullman Strike Role Play is a simulation from the Workable Peace Curriculum Series unit on the rise of organized labor in the United States.

This role play is set in the town of Pullman, Illinois, outside of Chicago, in 1894. Pullman is a town designed, owned, and operated by industrialist George Pullman, President of the Pullman Palace Car Company. Most of the several thousand people in Pullman are employed at the Pullman Company. Labor activism is strong in Chicago at this time, but Pullman tries to keep his workers from organizing and does not recognize unions. Nonetheless, the workers join the American Railway Union, just as the nation is sinking into an economic depression that forces most industrialists to lay off workers and lower wages. The burdens of this economic downswing are especially difficult for Pullman’s workers, because the rents in the town of Pullman are high.

Eventually, the conflict escalates to a confrontation between Pullman and a committee representing workers. The workers demand higher wages and lower rents, and Pullman informs them that neither can be met. Soon thereafter, the workers go on strike, and manage to convince the members of the American Railway Union to support them with a boycott of Pullman cars. This means they refuse to work on trains containing Pullman cars. The general managers of all the train companies in Chicago side with Pullman, and refuse to disconnect Pullman cars from their lines, and so train traffic is held up across the nation.

Although attempts were made to convince the parties involved to enter into negotiations, the key stakeholders never convened in either a formal or informal facilitated setting. Instead, the federal government sent forces from the U.S. Army to end the strike. It is at this point that the Pullman Strike Role Play becomes counter-factual. Our simulation asks participants to imagine “what if” all the stakeholder groups had been brought together for negotiations, by imagining that the federal government is unwilling to intervene until negotiations are attempted. Five stakeholders and a mediator/chair agree to sit down together to try to resolve the conflict.

Major Lessons:

  • Provide accurate history and background information on the growing conflict between labor and management during the Industrial Revolution, and specifically the Pullman Strike, and provide opportunities for students to engage with this history in a direct and realistic context
  • Stimulate and motivate student learning through active participation, as well as reading, writing, class discussion, and other forms of analysis and expression
  • Build students’ negotiation and conflict management skills by asking them to take on the roles of participants seeking to resolve a conflict through negotiation, with support and feedback as they prepare, conduct, and debrief the role play
  • Challenge students to find the links between the conflict presented in the role play and the conflict resolution steps presented in the Workable Peace Framework, and to apply them to other conflicts in history and in their own lives

Teacher’s Package Includes:

  • Participant materials
  • Teaching note
  • Master list of player goals
  • Framework for a workable peace
  • Workable peace self-assessment form
  • Overheads
  • Observation/assessment instructions

If you would like additional information about the Workable Peace framework and teaching materials, including information about teacher training and support, please contact Workable Peace Co-Directors David Fairman or Stacie Smith at:

The Consensus Building Institute, Inc. 238 Main Street, Suite 400 Cambridge, MA 02142 Phone: 617-492-1414 Fax: 617-492-1919 Website:

To purchase this role simulation, click here.

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