Why you should know about the 1894 pullman strike

The most famous and farreaching labor conflict in a period of severe economic depression and social unrest, the Pullman Strike began May 11, 1894, with a walkout by Pullman Palace Car Company factory workers after negotiations over declining wages failed. These workers appealed for support to the American Railway Union (ARU), which argued unsuccessfully for arbitration. On June 20, the ARU gave notice that beginning June 26 its membership would no longer work trains that included Pullman cars.

U. S. Troops on Lakefront, 1894

Why You Should Know About the 1894 Pullman Strike

The boycott, although centered in Chicago, crippled railroad traffic nationwide, until the federal government intervened in early July, first with a comprehensive injunction essentially forbidding all boycott activity and then by dispatching regular soldiers to Chicago and elsewhere. The soldiers joined with local authorities in getting the trains running again, though not without considerable vandalism and violence. ARU president Eugene Victor Debs was arrested and subsequently imprisoned for disregarding the injunction. The boycott and the union were broken by mid-July, partly because of the ARU's inability to secure broader support from labor leaders.

While the use of an injunction for such purposes, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1895, was a setback for unionism, and while most public sentiment was against the boycott, George Pullman attracted broad criticism and his workers wide sympathy.

A federal panel appointed to investigate the strike sharply criticized the company's paternalistic policies and refusal to arbitrate, advancing the idea of the need for unions and for increased government regulation in an age of large-scale industrialization.

Carl Smith


Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. 1942.

Smith, Carl. Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman. 1995.

United States Strike Commission. Report on the Chicago Strike of June–July, 1894. 1895.

Pullman Strike

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans witnessed many strikes.  Their causes varied.  Sometimes economic grievances–low pay, and, especially, long hours–led to strikes.

  Sometimes the conflicts were more subtle, as managers tried to increase their control over the work process. Usually, the basic issue was the right of workers to have unions and to engage in collective bargaining. Typically, strikes ended when the government applied its power against the unions.

One strike in particular, the Pullman strike of 1894, was especially important in American perceptions of  “the labor problem” of the time.   The Pullman strike brought Eugene Debs national attention, and it led directly to his conversion to socialism.

  The events of the strike led other Americans to begin a quest for achieving more harmonious relations between capital and labor while protecting the public interest.

The Pullman Company, owned by George Pullman, manufactured railroad cars, and by 1894 it operated “first class” sleeping cars on almost every one of the nation's major railroads. The name Pullman was a household word.

Pullman portrait from The Illustrated American (July 14, 1994: 65) 

The company's manufacturing plants were in a company-owned town on the outskirts of Chicago. Pullman publicized his company town as a model community filled with contented, well-paid workers. The Pullman workers, however disagreed, especially after the onset of the economic depression that begain in 1893.

  During that depression, Pullman sought to preserve profits by lowering labor costs. When the firm slashed its work force from 5,500 to 3,300 and cut wages by an average of 25 percent, the Pullman workers struck. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, was trying to organize rail workers all across the country.

The Pullman workers joined the ARU, and Debs became the leader of the Pullman strike.

The ARU enjoyed wide influence among the workers who operated trains.  To bring pressure on Pullman, the union asked trainmen to refuse to run trains on which Pullman sleeping cars were attached.

The union told the railroads that their trains could operate without the Pullman cars, but the railroads insisted that they had contracts with the Pullman Company requiring them to haul the sleeping cars.

The result was an impasse, with railroad workers in and around Chicago refusing to operate passenger trains.  The conflict was deep and bitter, and it seriously disrupted American railroad service.

Pullman Strike of 1894: When Labor Day was Born

May 11, 2016 by AFSCME Ohio Council 8

From The Chicago Tribune, September 4, 2011 by Ron Grossman 

Read the full article here.

On America’s mental calendar, Labor Day marks summer’s end with a reminder to close up beach cottages and get the kids to school. But the circumstances of its birth were bloodier. Legislation declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday was signed by President Grover Cleveland mere days before he sent the Army to violently squash the Pullman Strike of 1894.

Fourteen years earlier, George Pullman had built a self-sufficient community, south of what were then Chicago’s city limits, with factories, homes for the workers who built his famed sleeping cars and all the shops and schools its inhabitants needed. The Tribune saluted Pullman Town as “a model in its arrangements for the welfare of its citizens.”

But in 1893, with his business declining because of a depression, Pullman cut his workers’ wages — while holding them to their rents. He owned everything in town. “How long will it be before he owns you body and soul?” a labor organizer asked Pullman workers. They struck on May 11, 1894.

When railroad workers across much of the nation refused to handle Pullman’s cars, uncoupling them from trains and, in some instances, destroying them, a federal judge declared the strike an illegal interference with the mail.

In the midst of that unrest, Cleveland on June 28 established Labor Day, for which organized labor had been campaigning. With the situation in Chicago boiling over in the spring of 1894, it would have been impolitic for the Democratic president to resist the efforts of labor’s supporters in Congress.

19 results for “Pullman Strike, 1894”

In May of 1894, during a severe economic depression, members of the newly formed American Railway Union went on strike to protest the Pullman Company's refusal to reduce rental rates in company housing to match wage cuts. The union, led by Eugene V. Debs, called for a nationwide boycott on handling and repairing Pullman sleeping cars. Business and government leaders felt that a national railroad strike was tantamount to insurrection because it disrupted trade and mail delivery. Federal troops entered Chicago in July to end the strike.

When Frederic Remington wrote and illustrated this article about labor unrest in Chicago he was already a well-known for his images of western themes. The text describes Chicago's immigrant workers as an uncivilized and violent mob. The troops sent to restore order, Remington points out, had recently participated in the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Chicago was relatively peaceful during the early weeks of the American Railway Union's boycott of Pullman sleeping cars. Major violence erupted only after a federal court ordered the arrest of Eugene Debs and other union leaders on charges that they had violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

Ironically, the law was intended to limit the power of large corporations. When federal troops arrived in early July to enforce the court's order, several working-class neighborhoods erupted in violence. Soon after, the boycott was crushed.

This clipping from the Chicago Herald recounts the turmoil as workers, especially women, took to the streets to prevent trains from leaving the stockyards.

Chicago was relatively peaceful during the early weeks of the American Railway Union's boycott of Pullman sleeping cars. Major violence erupted only after a federal court ordered the arrest of Eugene Debs and other union leaders on charges that they had violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

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Ironically, the law was intended to limit the power of large corporations. When federal troops arrived in early July to enforce the court's order, several working-class neighborhoods erupted in violence. Soon after, the boycott was crushed.

This clipping from the Chicago Herald recounts the turmoil as workers, especially women, took to the streets to prevent trains from leaving the stockyards.

Workers leave the Pullman Palace Car Works, 1893. This picture appeared in a promotional booklet celebrating the paternalistic labor policies of George Pullman. A year later Pullman's workers were at the center of a national strike of rail workers that failed after federal troops intervened.

In the 1920s a growing number of large industrial employers developed welfare, recreation, and representation programs for their employees.

This letter, between executives of the Pullman Company, explores the possibility of a company organized savings and investment plan for workers who built, repaired, and serviced railroad cars.

Written shortly after the 1922 nationwide strike of railroad shop workers, the letter offers clues as to why employers favored such welfare programs.

How a Deadly Railroad Strike Led to the Labor Day Holiday

Today many Americans see Labor Day as time off from work, an opportunity to enjoy a barbecue with friends and family and a final moment of summertime relaxation before the busy fall season begins.

But the history behind the Labor Day holiday is far more complex and dramatic than most might realize, starting with a heated campaign by workers in the late 19th century to win support and recognition for their contributions.

In July 1894, President Grover Cleveland finally signed into law legislation creating a national Labor Day holiday in early September—even as federal troops in Chicago brutally crushed a strike by railroad and Pullman sleeping car company workers, leaving some 30 people dead.

Early History of Labor Day Celebrations

Illustration of the first American Labor parade held in New York City on September 5, 1882 as it appeared in Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper's September 16, 1882 issue.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

More than a decade before the Pullman strike, some 10,000 to 20,000 people joined a parade through Lower Manhattan, organized by New York City’s Central Labor Union on September 5, 1882.

“The windows and roofs and even the lamp posts and awning frames were occupied by persons anxious to get a good view of the first parade in New York of workingmen of all trades united in one organization,” reported the New York Tribune of that first Labor Day celebration.

Throughout the 1880s, labor strikes became increasingly common, with workers protesting their long hours and difficult, sometimes even dangerous, working conditions. In May 1886, the growing tensions between labor and capital exploded into violence during a protest rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Eight anarchists were eventually convicted on murder charges and four were executed.

After the Haymarket Riot, labor organizers and socialists in countries around the world began celebrating May 1 as Workers Day—an occasion U.S. government officials had no interest in sanctioning.

Meanwhile, other cities had followed New York’s lead in holding Labor Day celebrations in early September.

In 1887, Oregon became the first state to make it an official holiday; by 1894, 22 other states had passed similar legislation.

Outbreak of the Pullman Strike

A mob burning freight cars during the Pullman Strike in Chicago, 1894.

Fotosearch/Getty Images

In 1893, during a nationwide economic recession, George Pullman laid off hundreds of employees and cut wages for many of the remaining workers at his namesake railroad sleeping car company by some 30 percent. Meanwhile, he refused to lower rents or store prices in Pullman, Illinois, the company town south of Chicago where many of his employees lived. 

Angry Pullman workers walked out in May 1894, and the following month, the American Railway Union (ARU) and its leader, Eugene V. Debs, declared a sympathy boycott of all trains using Pullman cars.

The Pullman strike effectively halted rail traffic and commerce in 27 states stretching from Chicago to the West Coast, driving the General Managers Association (GMA), a group that represented Chicago’s railroad companies, to seek help from the federal government in shutting the strike down.

Federal Injunction, Troops and Violence

Burned freight and coal cars lining the expanse of the Panhandle Railroad, during the Pullman Railway Union strikes in Chicago, July 1894.

Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

On June 29, some crowd members attending a Debs speech in Blue Island, Illinois, set fires to nearby buildings and derailed a locomotive attached to a U.S. mail train. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney used the incident as an excuse to ask for an injunction against the strike and its leaders from the federal district court in Chicago, which he got on July 2.

“This was the turning point, because it enjoined the ARU and Debs from doing anything to support or direct the strike,” says Richard Schneirov, professor of history at Indiana State University. “Labor has for much of its history been hemmed in by injunctions, but the Pullman injunction was the first big instance where it really came to the attention of the public.”

The following day, President Cleveland dispatched federal troops to the city to enforce the injunction.

Illinois’ pro-labor governor, John Peter Altgeld, who had already called out state militia troops to prevent violence, was outraged, calling the government’s actions unconstitutional.

With the arrival of federal troops, the Pullman strike turned bloody, with some rioters destroying hundreds of railroad cars in South Chicago on July 6, and National Guardsmen firing into a mob on July 7, killing as many as 30 people and wounding many others.

The Federal Labor Day Holiday

Even as Pullman Company and railroad workers were striking, Congress passed legislation in June 1894 making the first Monday in September a federal legal holiday to recognize and celebrate labor. Cleveland signed the bill into law June 28, 1894, a few days before sending federal troops to Chicago.

“It was a way of being supportive of labor,” Schneirov says. “Labor unions were a constituency of the Democratic Party at the time, and it didn't look good for Cleveland, who was a Democrat, to be putting down this strike.”

Federal troops were recalled from Chicago on July 20, and the Pullman strike was declared over in early August.

Debs, arrested at the height of the violence along with several other ARU leaders, was charged with violating the injunction and served six months in jail.

Though the ARU disbanded, Debs would emerge as the leader of the nation’s growing socialist movement, running for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket.

Aside from the first major instance of “government by injunction” in the struggle between labor and capital, the Pullman strike also marked part of an important transition in American society during the Progressive Era, and a newly active role for the federal government in the nation’s economic and social life.

On this day, the Pullman Strike changes labor law

On May 11, 1894, several thousand train workers started an unannounced strike at the Pullman Company in Illinois.  Over the next few months, dozens of workers would die in strike-related violence, and the President and Supreme Court would finally become involved in the strike’s outcome.

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The Pullman Company built and leased passenger train cars, thousands of which were in operation around the United States by 1893. George Pullman also built a planned community or company town for his workers in Illinois, where workers enjoyed many amenities but were also financially dependent on the Pullman Company for their homes and utilities.

After a severe depression in 1893, wages fell about 25 percent for the Pullman workers while living costs remained the same. The workers then sought out union representation. Former railroad worker Eugene V.

Debs and his American Railway Union, which had won a strike earlier in 1894, became involved in the Pullman situation.

The May 11 “wildcat” strike wasn’t directly organized by the ARU, but Debs and the union quickly became involved in the strike as it escalated.

In June 1894, the ARU called for a national boycott of Pullman cars by its union members, who managed the flow of railway traffic west of Chicago. The Pullman Company attempted to call Debs’ bluff, and by late June, at least 125,000 ARU members had walked off the job in support of the Pullman workers.

Violence related to the strikes became an issue, as did U.S. mail delivery system’s inability to operate in strike-affected regions. When Illinois governor John P. Altgeld refused to ask for federal troops to intercede in the strike, U.S.

Attorney General Richard Olney, who had a close relationship with the railway industry, asked for the first-ever federal injunction to block a strike. However, the strikers mostly ignored the injunction, a court order which said they had to stop striking and return to work.

President Grover Cleveland then sent about 2,000 troops to Illinois to enforce the injunction, and more violence ensued.

Debs and other union leaders were arrested after the injunction was ignored. Debs eventually spent six months in jail on related charges and the ARU was broken up. Debs hired a former railroad attorney, Clarence Darrow, to represent him at trial.

Debs, Darrow and former Senate Lyman Trumbull challenged the injunction’s legality and Debs’s confinement, eventually appealing all the way to the Supreme Court.

In 1895, a unanimous Court decided the case of In re Debs, holding that the federal government could issue a strike injunction as part of its role in regulating interstate commerce and in order to protect the general welfare of the people.

  • “In the exercise of those powers, the United States may remove everything put upon highways, natural or artificial, to obstruct the passage of interstate commerce, or the carrying of the mails,” said Justice David Brewer.
  • However, Brewer acknowledged the importance of the issue nationally and the effectiveness of Darrow’s arguments.
  • “A most earnest and eloquent appeal was made to us in eulogy of the heroic spirit of those who threw up their employment, and gave up their means of earning a livelihood, not in defense of their own rights, but in sympathy or and to assist others whom they believed to be wronged,” Brewer wrote.
  • But he added that the court and electoral systems were the best venues to settle such disputes.
  • “We yield to none in our admiration of any act of heroism or self-sacrifice, but we may be permitted to add that it is a lesson which cannot be learned too soon or too thoroughly that, under this government of and by the people, the means of redress of all wrongs are through the courts and at the ballot box, and that no wrong, real or fancied, carries with it legal warrant to invite as a means of redress the cooperation of a mob, with its accompanying acts of violence.”
  • After the Pullman strike and the Supreme Court decision, Debs and Darrow would remain prominent figures in the labor and legal fields into the twentieth century.

The Great Pullman Strike of 1894 and the History of Labor Day

In the late 1800’s, the state of labor was grim as U.S. workers toiled under bleak conditions: 12 or more hour workdays; hazardous work environments; meager pay. Children, some as young as 5, were often permanent workers at plants and factories working to help their families to barely make ends meet.

The dismal livelihoods fueled the formation of the country’s first labor unions, which began to organize strikes and protests and pushed employers for better hours and pay. Many of the rallies often turned violent.

On Sept. 5, 1882 — a Tuesday — 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march in a parade from City Hall to Union Square in New York City as a tribute to American workers.

Organized by New York’s Central Labor Union, It was the country’s first unofficial Labor Day parade.

Three years later, some city ordinances marked the first government recognition, and legislation soon followed in a number of states.

Then came May 11, 1894, and a strike that shook an Illinois town founded by George Pullman, an engineer and industrialist who created the railroad sleeping car. The community, located on the Southside of Chicago, was designed as a “company town” in which most of the factory workers who built Pullman cars lived.

When his company laid off workers and lowered wages, it did not reduce rents, and the workers called for a strike.

Among the reasons for the strike were the absence of democracy within the town of Pullman and its politics, the rigid paternalistic control of the workers by the company, excessive water and gas rates, and a refusal by the company to allow workers to buy and own houses

When wage cuts hit, 4,000 workers staged a strike that pitted the American Railway Union vs. the Pullman Company and the federal government. The strike and boycott against trains triggered a nationwide transportation nightmare for freight and passenger traffic.

In June 1894, the ARU called for a national boycott of Pullman cars for its union members, who managed the flow of railway traffic west of Chicago. The Pullman Company called Debs’ bluff, and by late June, at least 125,000 ARU members had walked off the job in support of the Pullman workers.

President Grover Cleveland, citing the now delayed mail system, declared the strike illegal and sent 12,000 troops to break it. Two men were killed in the violence that erupted near Chicago. Debs was sent to prison, and the ARU was disbanded, and Pullman employees henceforth were required to sign a pledge that they would never again unionize.

U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney nd his specially appointed deputy, an attorney for one of the struck railroads, quickly won a court injunction ordering strikers back to work, on grounds that they had conspired to illegally restrain trade. 

The court order was issued, ironically, under the anti-trust law that originally was aimed at keeping corporations from joining together to exercise monopoly control. That, of course, was precisely what the railroads did in determining pay rates and working conditions, and in trying to destroy the strikers’ union. 

But that was ignored, while federal officials and the press thundered out warnings that Eugene Debs was leading a conspiracy aimed at forcibly overthrowing the government. 

When he and the strikers refused to comply with the injunction, in came federal troops, and with them the strike’s first serious violence. 

The worst of many incidents broke out in Chicago when soldiers fired into a crowd of some 10,000 people who, spurred on by agents provocateurs from the railroads, had gathered to set fire to boxcars and otherwise violently protest the movement of trains by the Army. Twenty-five people were killed, 60 badly injured. 

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In other incidents, strikers and their supporters also were fired on by special deputy marshals whom government investigators later identified as “thugs, thieves and ex-convicts” armed and paid for by the railroads. 

Hundreds of union officials and members were cited for violating the injunction, which prohibited anyone from even suggesting that railroad employees refuse to work. Debs and other key leaders were jailed for three to six months and government agents raided and ransacked ARU offices . 

The union couldn’t even hold rallies in support of the strike, and though the Pullman strikers themselves held out for a few months, the massive railroad strike launched in their behalf was over after 19 days. 

A national Labor Day holiday was then declared within months.

Some experts say Grover Cleveland supported the idea of such a holiday, which already existed in several states, in an effort to make peace with the unions before he ran for re-election.

(He would lose anyway.) But perhaps one of the most eloquent explanations of why the federal government saw fit to declare the holiday can be found in a Congressional committee report on the matter.

Sen. James Henderson Kyle of South Dakota introduced a bill, S. 730, to Congress shortly after the Pullman strike, proposing Labor Day be the first Monday in September. Here’s how Rep. Lawrence McGann (D-IL), who sat on the Committee on Labor, argued for the holiday in a report submitted on May 15, 1894:

The use of national holidays is to emphasize some great event or principle in the minds of the people by giving them a day of rest and recreation, a day of enjoyment, in commemoration of it.

By making one day in each year a public holiday for the benefit of workingmen the equality and dignity of labor is emphasized. Nothing is more important to the public weal than that the nobility of labor be maintained.

So long as the laboring man can feel that he holds an honorable as well as useful place in the body politic, so long will he be a loyal and faithful citizen.

The celebration of Labor Day as a national holiday will in time naturally lead to an honorable emulation among the different crafts beneficial to them and to the whole public. It will tend to increase the feeling of common brotherhood among men of all crafts and callings, and at the same time kindle an honorable desire in each craft to surpass the rest.

There can be no substantial objection to making one day in the year a national holiday for the benefit of labor. The labor organizations of the whole country, representing the great body of our artisan population, request it. They are the ones most interested.

They desire it and should have it.

If the farmers, manufacturers, and professional men are indifferent to the measure, or even oppose it, which there is no reason to believe, that still would constitute no good objection, for their work can be continued on holidays as well as on other days if they so desire it.

Workingmen should have one day in the year peculiarly their own. Nor will their employers lose anything by it. Workingmen are benefited by a reasonable amount of rest and recreation. Whatever makes a workingman more of a man makes him more useful as a craftsman.

Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law on June 28, 1894.

And that is how Labor Day came to be

Pullman, Illinois workers strike for pay (Pullman Strike), 1894

Leaders, partners, allies, elites


External allies: 

Building and Trades Council of Chicago; railroad workers throughout Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, California, Illinois, and Oklahoma

Involvement of social elites: 

Illinois Governor, Peter Altgeld

Joining/exiting order of social groups

Groups in 1st Segment: 

Groups in 3rd Segment: 

Chicago area railroad workers

Groups in 4th Segment: 

American Railways Union

railroad workers throughout the country

Groups in 6th Segment: 

Building and Trades Council of Chicago

Illinois Governor Peter Altgeld

Additional notes on joining/exiting order: 

Approximately half of the estimated 260,000 railroad men who participated in the boycott and strike were not members of the American Railways Union

Segment Length: 

Approximately 11 days Opponent, Opponent Responses, and Violence


George Pullman, Pullman's Palace Car Company, President Grover Cleveland, Attorney General Richard Olney, the General Manager's Association, Federal and State Reserve Troops

Nonviolent responses of opponent: 

Campaigner violence: 

On 4 July 1894 protesters engaged in violent battles with federal troops.

Protests were largely nonviolent before the deployment of federal troops on 3 July, then general mayhem makes it difficult to identify specific cases of violence, though many occurred on both sides.

There are also mentioned cases of striker violence against black strikebreakers hired by the GMA, though timing is unclear. By the end of strike 34 people had been killed. Violence was never sanctioned by the ARU or Eugene Debs.

Repressive Violence: 

Martial law, deployment of state and federal troops, firing of bullets into crowds, seizure of private property, arrests

In the wake of economic depression in 1893, George Pullman, Illinois businessman and inventor of the sleeping railway car, sought to cut costs in his company town outside of Chicago. Mr. Pullman fired approximately one third of his workers, and reduced remaining wages by over 25 percent.

He refused to decrease housing and food prices in the town. The entire town of Pullman was owned by George Pullman and the Pullman Palace Car Company, and rents were automatically deducted from wages by the company.

George Pullman refused to either lower rents or raise wages and workers began to organize and discuss the possibility of a strike.

During March and April of 1894 a majority of Pullman workers joined the American Railway Union (ARU), which was growing due to a recent successful strike against the Great Northern Railroad. The ARU had nearly 150,000 members and allowed all white men who worked for a railroad company to join.

A group of Pullman employees formed a grievance committee in order to negotiate with the company’s manager. On May 10, 1894, three members of this committee were laid off, purportedly for refusal to work.

That evening the Pullman workers gathered, and despite warnings of caution and advice against striking from two top ARU officials and ARU president Eugene Debs, the Pullman workers unanimously voted to strike.

On May 11, 1894, Pullman workers refused to work.

Pullman workers did not anticipate success. As one employee said, “We do not expect the company to concede to our demands… We do know that we are working for less wages than will maintain ourselves and our families in the necessaries of life, and on that proposition we absolutely refuse to work any longer.”

On June 9, the ARU held a convention in nearby Chicago. Pullman workers attended and appealed to the delegates for aid. The leadership of ARU sought to avoid the spread of what it saw as a possible sympathetic strike.

But as George Pullman refused arbitration, a committee at the convention urged for a boycott of Pullman railroad cars, calling on switchmen to refuse trains pulling Pullman manufactured cars.

On June 21, delegates unanimously voted to begin a boycott on June 26 unless George Pullman accepted arbitration.

Meanwhile, George Pullman was meeting with a body of railroad owners and managers organized in the General Managers Association (GMA). On June 22, the GMA decided to resist the proposed boycott.

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