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Labor History Blog July 2024: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

This month we will talk about the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which began on July 14 and ended on August 2.
There were many railroad strikes during the 1800’s. For most of them, the common denominator was economic depression. As I have said many times, in a capitalist economy, booms and busts are common in the economic cycle. During the 1800’s there were five such depressions (back then they called them “Panics”).

Just 14 years after the previous Panic, the Panic of 1873-1878 was caused by the firm of Jay Cooke and Company. Cooke, a major financier of the Civil War, whose bank sold government bonds to pay down the Civil War debt became the exclusive bond agent for Northern Pacific Railroad. He began writing liability for the railroad expecting future bond sales would cover the gap. When Jay Cooke and Company went down, it caused three million people to lose their jobs and a drop in agricultural prices. This hit rural America particularly hard and led to the Greenback Party, an anti-monopoly group active between 1874 and 1884. They wanted to be rid of paper money in favor of gold and silver coins and proponents of the “gold standard”; and did not want the value of paper money to be determined by the banks. They also condemned the use of militias and private police in union strikes.

Remember this happened during the Gilded Age, where the corporate business model- that provided the machinery which perpetuated perverse amounts of wealth and opulence- served as a predicate for class warfare. Life revolved around acquiring the basic substances for life: food, shelter, and clothing. There was no disposable income for the average worker. Workers were dependent on the benevolence of the owners for their survival. The workers were growing angry that the very wealthy were not allowing them enough wages to survive, never mind prospering. Corporations openly and arrogantly dominated entire industries, fixing prices, and crushing unions, making it harder for workers to live.

It was all beginning to emerge into a social revolution, with a series of labor strikes beginning in 1877 with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, also known as the Great Railroad Strike. The company took advantage of the economic conditions of the time, and an attempt to eliminate the recently formed worker alliances. At this point in time, there was no national railroad union. Workers were, however, affiliated with various groups: The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the Order of Railway Conductors, Machinists’ and Blacksmiths’ International Union, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which was the largest with 10,000 members.

Workers responded to the pay cut of 10% for the third time in a year at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O). On July 16, 1877, in Martinsburg West Virginia, workers decoupled the locomotives from the rest of the train, where they stood stranded. The governor called in the militia but were unable to protect the 600 trains that were exposed. What the Governor did not know was many of the militia were either railroad workers or sympathized with the workers. The strike quickly grew to most major cities in the country including Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Newark, Trenton, Albany, Buffalo, and more. Strikers stopped trains in Cumberland, MD, which compelled more law enforcement to take action, leading to 10 dead in the police’s efforts to disburse the crowd.

On July 19, President Rutherford B. Hayes sanctioned the use of Federal Troops deployed with Gatling guns. This was the catalyst that changed the momentum and overwhelmed the strikers. It took two weeks to combat and crush the unions. This showed the power of the industrialists along with their willingness to use modern mechanized weapons against workers.

On July 21st in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Adjunct General James Latta, called in troops to clear tracks as a mob formed. These regular army troops took their orders seriously and had no affiliation with the local strikers. The troops invoked a bayonet charge which caused gunfire to be exchanged. The militia retreated to a roundhouse while workers, as well as the enraged public, burned the locomotives and trains. The result left 20 dead along with a general strike throughout the city which employed more supporters: steelworkers, miners, and regular workers.

Skirmishes like this were occurring all over the country where the railroads had major capital investment. You see, the bottom line in all this has nothing to do with the people. As in most cases with strikes, the issue has more to do with protecting their capital investments, such as building and infrastructure, equipment, machinery, and technological investments. If you learn anything from these writings, please understand this, job number one for any corporation is to achieve a profit, and job two is to maximize that profit. There are no exceptions to this rule. Our history proves it by so many examples and continues to prove it today in this anti-union climate.

By August 2, 1877, the Strike was over, quelling the riots and strikers being arrested, union leaders became frightened that they too may be going to prison and denounced the strike. More than 100,000 workers were involved in the strike that caused more than half of the country’s freight to stop. In the end, about 1,000 people were arrested along with 100 killed.
The aftermath reported strikers burned 39 buildings, 104 locomotives, around 60 passenger cars, and as many as 1300 freight cars. One State Senate report stated the range of damages to be between $2 million and $5 million. This was in 1878; in today’s dollars, I think it is safe to say we can add two zeros to those figures.

As angry as strikers and sympathizers were during the riots, they did not interfere with the U.S. mail, nor did they stop passenger trains or interfere with the innocent caught up within it. Where this uprising was not orchestrated, it was the first time the general public along with the workers rioted in public revolt. It was not the last railroad strike in the 1800’s.

In 1886, the Great Southwest Railroad strike was brought on because a member of the Knights of Labor was fired for initiating a union meeting on company time. This came off the back of a successful strike of the Wabash Railroad just a year earlier against the owner, the railroad baron, Jay Gould. This led the Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific railroads to bring in the state police force to break up the strike and open the door for replacement workers. Arrogant owner Jay Gould’s famous comment “I can pay half of the working class to kill the other half” seemed to be correct.

In 1894 came the Pulman strike, caused again by another depression (panic) causing prices of goods to rise and sales to drop. Does this sound familiar? It keeps happening and not enough people are paying attention. This time Pulman took on a National Union, the American Railway Union. However, this did not turn out much better for the union, although Pulman in the end had to dissolve his company town. I will write about this more in September.

What was important about these strikes was that the industrialists began to realize that the anarchists were correct. If they did not give workers a fair shake, the people would revolt and take away ownership over the means of production. Recognizing that this kind of strike could stop the flow of commerce, laws were passed to ensure they were minimized. Thus, it is not surprising that the first law passed was the Railway Labor Act. This is a United States federal law on US labor law that governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries.

Note: This is a case where workers came together for a common cause.
As I keep saying Why do people Organize? For societal need. Commonality of need.
The sooner we, as a society, recognize we need each other, the sooner we can accomplish a social common good. It is fine that we are individuals, we just need to stop isolating ourselves in our cocoon that we protect ourselves in. It matters that we open up and have compassion for each other.

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