Posted: March 18th, 2023
Labor and Union Studies
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
In 1873 a depression gripped the country. There were layoffs, wage cuts, breadlines, and evictions. Thousands and thousands of people suffered during the winter. In 1874, the unions tried to organize workers, demanding higher wages and shorter workdays but had little success in doing this. By 1877, just about three million people were out of work. This was an astonishing twenty seven percent of the working population. Those who were able to keep a job worked six months a year and their wages were cut by about forty five percent. They were essentially working for one dollar a day. A rigged political election plunged the country further into despair. Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, was not the preponderance of the peoples’ choice for President, but twenty disputed electoral votes brought the decision of who was to be president to the House of Representatives. A smooth deal with Thomas Scott, of the PA railroad, gave Hayes the southern congressional votes he needed. Basically he swapped votes for a rescue of failing investments in the Texas and Pacific railroads. As a special inducement, Republicans also promised to stop reconstruction in the South, a slap in the face to African-Americans (The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, n.d.).
The Pennsylvania Railroad had previously slashed wages by ten percent when it proceeded to cut wages by another ten percent in June 1877. The following month they announced that the size of all eastbound trains from Pittsburgh would be doubled, with no any increase in the amount of crews. Angry railroad workers took control of switches and blocked the progress of trains. In the meantime, on July 13, the Baltimore & Ohio cut the wages of all workers making more than a dollar a day, also by ten percent. The company also decreased the workweek to only two or three days, which was a further pay cut. On July 16 firemen and brakemen refused to work. The company tried to bring in replacements as a lot of experienced men were out of work because of the depression, but the strikers gathered at Camden Junction, three miles from Baltimore, and would not let trains move in any direction (Remembering a worker rebellion, 2003).
The word quickly spread to Martinsburg, West Virginia, where workers abandoned their trains and prohibited others from operating them. The railroad company petitioned to the governor, who called out the militia. Militiamen and workers exchanged gunfire. The scabs ran off, the militia pulled out and the strikers were left in control of their idled trains. The strike quickly followed the rails to Wheeling and Parkersburg. Governors began asking for the aid of the national government. President Hayes responded quickly and Federal troops armed with Springfield rifles and Gatling guns arrived in Martinsburg. This show of force got the trains running, releasing the thirteen locomotives and fifteen hundred freight cars that had been bottled up in Martinsburg (Remembering a worker rebellion, 2003).
In Baltimore, a mass of thousands sympathetic to the railway strikers encircled the armoury of the National Guard, which had been called out by the governor at the appeal of the B&0 Railroad. The crowd threw rocks, and the soldiers came out, firing. “The streets became the scene of a moving, bloody battle. When the evening was over, ten men or boys were dead, more badly injured and one soldier wounded. Half of the one hundred and twenty troops quit and the rest went on to the train depot, where a crowd of two hundred smashed the engine of a passenger train, tore up tracks, and engaged the militia again in a running battle” (1877: The Great Railroad Strike, 2006).
The strike turned violent as the workers detained trains and damaged railroad property. The bloody countrywide railroad strike had set off a wave of violent riots and a class war that brought the nation close to revolution. For the first time in American history, a Red scare was directed against the urban workers. The violence caused fear among the general public and forced state politics to take action. Most state governors saw the strike as a communist threat and came down hard on the strikers. They activated their National Guard units to combat labor violence. Violence and brutality by the state only motivated more violence. “Outraged by such deadly force, the strikers ripped up tracks, burned roundhouses and destroyed rolling stock” (Hogarty, 2001).
Overall, 100,000 workers went on strike joined by numerous unemployed and homeless. Food was supplied to strikers by farmers showing the unity that arises every time average men and women are pushed to their limits. When the strike was finally over, there were more than one hundred people who had been killed and one thousand thrown in jail. In the end the gains were scarcely even visible because the bosses strengthened the police presence in the workplaces and enforced an iron rule on the workers making it very hard to organize (The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, n.d.).
Even as they agreed to some worker demands, bosses were resolute to never again permit workers the upper hand. The railroads made some allowances, took back some wage cuts, but also strengthened their Coal and Iron Police. In several large cities, National Guard armories were built. Working people learned that without strong unions and nationwide organization they could not overcome the association of capital and government. Not all drew the same conclusions from this lesson though. For some, the experience warranted the development of a conservative business unionism that would not confront the boss or promote social change. For others, it meant organizing the comprehensive Knights of Labor on a national basis and building labor parties that would realign government. America’s Industrial Revolution was in progress, and with it came a modern labor movement (Remembering a worker rebellion, 2003).
The great railroad strike of 1877 was a defining moment in the divide between labor and capital. It spurred the labor movement into a unified and integrated force. The Knights of Labor began to press their demands in the political areas. The violence and lack of training on the part of the soldiers only irritated the rioters and propagated the violence. It raised some serious questions about the correctness of deploying state troops for such purposes. The biggest lesson learned was that the worker’s aggression was directly connected to their poverty, their poor health and their despair over their helplessness to earn enough money to support their families (Hogarty, 2001). More than half the freight on the nation’s seventy five thousand miles of track stopped moving. More than one hundred had died and one thousand had been jailed, although those jailed were not the ones directly responsible for the deaths. The results of the Great Strike were varied (Remembering a worker rebellion, 2003).
The Great Strike sealed the end of Reconstruction by presenting the federal government, dominated by bourgeoisie and Republic party based in the North, with a serious and instant crisis. Federal troops massed in northern cities to help hold back rioting by free white laborers and other urban residents. The Great Strike marked a basic shift in the nation’s political agenda, for it pushed to the forefront of politics the question of labor and capital, work and wages. “Reconstruction and the issues that had arisen from the Civil War as well as the abolition of slavery receded from the national spotlight” (Stowell, 1999). 1877 was the same year that blacks learned they did not have enough power to make real the promise of equality in the Civil War and working people learned they were not unified enough, not commanding enough, to defeat the grouping of private capital and government power (1877: The Great Railroad Strike, 2006).
Perhaps the most confrontational expression of public anger during the Great Rail Strike, the St. Louis General Strike called for radical reforms like an eight-hour workday and abolition of child labor. The strike served as the model for later strikes, most prominently the strike wave of the 1930’s. Lasting about a month and a half, the strike ended only after President Hayes sent federal troops into combat against American citizens (Mullen, 2011).
After the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, union organizers planned for their next battles while politicians and business leaders took steps to make sure that such disorder could not happen again. A lot of states put into place conspiracy statutes. States formed new militia units, and National Guard armories were built in a number of cities. “For workers and employers alike, the strikes had shown the power of workers in combination to challenge the status quo. In the wake of the strike, unions became better organized and the number of strikes increased. In the 1880s there were nearly ten thousand strikes and lockouts and in 1886 nearly 700,000 workers went on strike. As is to be expected, business leaders took a more rigid stance against the unions. Nonetheless, and possibly because of the more rigid stance, the labor movement continued to grow” (Hogarty, 2001).
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the nations’ first major rail strike and witnessed the first general strikes in the country’s history. The strikes and the violence it brought about temporarily paralyzed the country’s commerce and led governors in ten states to mobilize sixty thousand militia members to reopen rail traffic. The strike would be broken within a few weeks, but it also helped set the stage for later violence in the 1880’s and 1890’s, including the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886, the Homestead Steel Strike near Pittsburgh in 1892, and the Pullman Strike in 1894 (1877: The Great Railroad Strike, 2006).
There have been many protests in American history against corporations, industrialists, bankers, Wall Street and the economic devastation their unregulated activities including the 19th-century labor movement that featured thousands of strikes and protests. The current protest that can be compared to that of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is Occupy Wall Street (Mullen, 2011). It never amazes to see how history always repeats itself.
While police and troops made those late 19th century strikes as violent as Occupy Wall Street protests have been peaceful, the two sets of events are inextricably bound by the same dynamic. In 1877 and 1886, the hundreds of thousands of striking workers were revolting against the robber barons and capitalists who tightly controlled their lives while today’s demonstrations are a reflection of the despair most feel about reforming let alone fighting back against the financial institutions that are a in effect shadow government responsible for the ongoing economic downturn. The precursor to the 1877 strikes was the financial panic of September 1773, which was fueled by out of control stock market speculation. By 1874, a million workers were without jobs and some cities had unemployment rates approaching twenty five percent in the greatest depression up to that point in American history. The response of the robber barons and corporate chiefs was to make workers work longer hours for less pay, which weakened the substantial gains that labor unions had made after the Civil War (Mullen, 2011).
Times may have changed but the sentiment is the same. American workers are tired of being taken advantage of by big business. People want to have the right to pursue the American Dream. They want to be offered fair wages for a fair days work. Just like back in 1877, American workers do not feel that businesses care near as much about them as they do about making a profit. Making a profit is okay, in fact that is what our capitalist society is based upon, but business should not be able to make their profit while taking advantage of the American worker, or for that fact the American public as a whole. There needs to be rules and regulations in place that promote good for everyone, not just those in big business. Historically it has been this very notion that people have fought against for many years, and just as before there does not appear to be a clear solution this time either.
1877: The Great Railroad Strike. (2006). Retrieved from http://libcom.org/history/articles/us-rail-strikes-1877
Hogarty, R.A. (2001). Leon Abbett’s New Jersey: the emergence of the modern governor.
Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.
Mullen, S. (2011). The Strikes of 1877 & 1886: Historic Precedents For Occupy Wall Street.
Retrieved from http://themoderatevoice.com/125452/the-strikes-of-1877-1886-
Remembering a worker rebellion. (2003). Retrieved from http://www.ranknfile-
Stowell, D.O. (1999). Streets, railroads, and the Great Strike of 1877. Chicago, IL:
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www2.ucsc.edu/resnet/res-includes/hilte/results.php
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