This Week in Labor History, vol. 8: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
by Sean Lundergan, Fr. Boyle Fellow
143 years ago, on July 16, 1877, workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia went on strike in response to wage cuts imposed by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. They blockaded the railway, disabled the cars and announced that no train could pass through Martinsburg until Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) cancelled the pay cut. The governor sent in a militia to put down the strike, but when a striker shot a militia member who tried to prevent a train car from derailing, the militia abandoned the effort (but not before shooting and killing that striker).
On seeing the failure of his state militia, the West Virginia governor wired the president, Rutherford B Hayes, and requested that he send in federal troops to try to put down the “insurrection.” (1) This was the first time in the country’s history that the standing army was used to suppress a strike.
The strike spread quickly throughout B&O and throughout the United States, expanding to other industries and taking on greater and more localized demands as it grew. And there was no shortage of demands. One of the primary reasons that the 1877 strike spread so rapidly and gained such wide support is that the United States was in the fourth year of the worst economic depression in its history. The Panic of 1873, as it was known, is considered to have begun when financier Jay Cooke announced that his firm was bankrupt, which sparked a chain reaction of declining investment and a sustained period of deflation. (2) Cooke’s investments included substantial stakes in railroads, and the industry was hit hard by the collapse. Millions of Americans became unemployed, and those who held their jobs saw decreased or stagnant wages. (3) Labor unions, which had seen moderate growth since the Civil War, were devastated by the depression and lost over 80% of their membership.
Smaller-scale strikes, even uprisings like that of Susquehanna Depot in 1874, where workers temporarily seized their employers’ property and only surrendered to militias. But by 1877 the deprivation had gone on long enough, in so many parts of the country, that a strike in a small West Virginia town quickly came to engulf much of the United States.
Strike me in St. Louis
One of the most prominent venues for the 1877 strike was St. Louis, Missouri, where a general strike threatened to upend the established order in the booming midwestern city.
The strike reached East St. Louis, Illinois, then a busy railroad hub, on July 22 and crossed the Mississippi into St. Louis proper the following day. Seizing on popular support for the action, members of the socialist Workingmen’s Party (WPUSA) organized a general strike that brought the city to a screeching halt. The strike’s demands grew alongside it, having begun with a focus on an end to child labor and an eight-hour work day and then expanding to include calls for the nationalization of railroads, the provision of food to strikers and several other political, economic and monetary reforms. Within days strikers found themselves in charge of much of the city, and the WPUSA’s Executive Committee attempted to form a workers’ council made up of WPUSA members and labor leaders. Though it’s relatively little-known in modern-day America, this was a momentous step in socialist and labor-oriented politics; it was one of the first of its kind, now seen as a precursor to later workers’ councils (called “soviets” in Russian, this model had some success, especially in St. Petersburg, in the 1905 Russian Revolution and, of course, took on new meaning shortly thereafter).
Journalists covering the strike and reflecting on it in its immediate aftermath tended to downplay it and denigrate its participants. Strikers were denounced as “rabble”; a (mostly meaningless) distinction was made between “real” strikers and “tramps and loafers”; and Black St. Louisans, an easy target in the former slave state only twelve years after the end of slavery, were demonized and scapegoated as the most dangerous members of this “mob.” But where newspapers saw, or claimed to see, strikers as petty looters (there were a small handful of instances of minor looting and property damage reported), the upper classes of the city saw them as a serious threat. The mayor of St. Louis helped the city’s elite assemble an armed “Committee of Public Safety,” essentially an ad-hoc anti-strike militia, that was controlled almost entirely by the capital-owning classes of the city.
Perhaps leery of the potential backlash, the Executive Committee that was leading the strike demonstrated a clear willingness, bordering on eagerness, to negotiate. Whether this unnecessarily diminished the strikers’ bargaining position or was all that saved the city from mass bloodshed is impossible to know with certainty, but on Wednesday, July 25th—only the third day since the striking began in St. Louis and the first full day of the general strike—the Executive Committee stopped all public pro-strike marches, parades and mass meetings. While this was likely an attempt to show good faith in negotiations, with this decision the Executive Committee “divorced itself from all contact with the public,” a critical error given that the Committee of Public Safety was rapidly building up its army. (4)
When it eventually ended the strike by raiding its headquarters, the Committee’s militia consisted of at least 5,000 armed men—20% of the size of the US Army at the time. This was a staggering display of the power of capital in St. Louis, but it also revealed the inadequacy of the city’s existing institutions in protecting business. The strike was used as a primary argument for the expansion of the St. Louis police force, and on the presumption that it would protect capital the force was indeed expanded. (Notably, the St. Louis police department is now the most violent in the country, killing more residents per capita than any other in the US.)
The general strike ended in failure within a week. But as an early attempt at a workers’ council, a case study in the lengths to which capitalists would go to maintain power over their workers, and a component of the larger movement in the summer of 1877, the St. Louis General Strike is essential to understanding the broader sentiments and concerns among both the working class and the capitalist class at the time.
Unemployed workers and workers from other industries joined railroad workers in large and small cities from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to Chicago to Kansas City. National Guardsmen in Pittsburgh met the uprising with deadly force, killing eleven people in one confrontation in a tenement neighborhood. The city’s population responded by destroying train cars and seizing an arsenal of sixty rifles to form an impromptu militia of their own.
In Chicago, WPUSA members and other socialist organizers spent the first days of the strike furiously distributing leaflets and holding mass meetings to organize and unify the working class of the city. Like their counterparts in St. Louis, the Chicago elite were not at all happy with this development, and the municipal government leaned heavily on some of the more prominent organizers:
Albert Parsons, the most influential Socialist, found himself fired from his job as a printer at the Times, and detectives escorted him to the city hall. There, in the company of the police chief and over thirty aldermen and members of the Board of Trade, he and WPUS chairman Philip Van Patten were browbeaten and threatened with lynching. They were saved from arrest only because the authorities feared creating martyrs, and they released the men on the promise to absent themselves from strike activity for twenty-four hours. “Parsons, your life is in danger,” said Police Chief Michael Hickey before Parsons was freed. “Everything you say or do is made known to me.” (5)
In Chicago and in dozens of other hotspots of strike activity, the uprising had in a matter of days become far more than a strike against low pay for railroad workers. According to an editorial in a German-language Chicago newspaper, “What originally began as an effort to reverse the lowering of the railroad workers’ wages has become, in the course of a few days, a general vendetta between labor and capital.” (6)
Strikes were not restricted only to the industrial cities and railroad towns of the north. Black dockworkers in Galveston, Texas, struck and won pay equal to that of their white coworkers. Soon white workers and workers in other industries joined the strike, and the coalition won a $2 per day standard wage in Galveston. Just twelve years since the Union army had marched into Texas to announce the end of slavery, working class Black and white people united to assert their power and extract concessions from their bosses. Black sewer workers in Louisville began a citywide strike for $1.50 a day, which eventually led to 500 workers’ seizing the city’s train station to protest the railroad company’s refusal to increase its workers’ pay. For a moment in 1877, however brief, cross-racial working class solidarity was tangibly shown to be mutually beneficial for both Black and white southerners; later elites were happy to take advantage of the end of Reconstruction, which had happened just months before, to attempt to erase the thought from white workers’ minds.
Most strikes were subdued within a few weeks by a combination of federal and state troops. Over 100,000 workers had participated, by far the largest labor action in United States history.
Lasting impact of the strikes
The strikes of 1877 helped breathe life into a moribund labor movement. Unions that had existed at the time the strikes broke out were generally too small and weak to direct them, but the 1880s saw a massive increase in union membership. Of course, other economic factors contributed to the rebound, but the example set by such a powerful, spontaneous mass movement led many workers to form local labor organizations.
It also marked the first time the United States military had acted as a police force against its own people. Military historian Barton C. Hacker notes that, beginning with its role in the 1877 strike, suppressing labor action became “the most conspicuous function of the Regular Army during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.” Despite its tiny size relative to what it would later become, the army was far more reliable than the National Guard. During the Great Strike many companies of the National Guard were filled with men who were broadly sympathetic to the strikers; in Newark, Ohio, when local higher-ups refused to give troops their rations, strikers ended up providing their meals. Soldiers in the Army, on the other hand, were “the fellers that shoot!” (7) By the strike’s end, over 100 strikers were dead.
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is also known as the Great Upheaval because it was more than a railroad strike. It was the United States’ first mass strike, and it showed working people that together they could exert substantial power.
1. Brecher, Jeremy. Strike! (2014) ch 1.
2. Wells, O. V. “The Depression of 1873-79.” Agricultural History 11, no. 3 (1937): 237-51. Accessed July 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/3739798.
3. Barreyre, Nicolas. “The Politics of Economic Crises: The Panic of 1873, the End of Reconstruction, and the Realignment of American Politics.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 10, no. 4 (2011): 403-23. Accessed July 17, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/23045120.
4. Roediger, David. “”Not Only the Ruling Classes to Overcome, but Also the So-Called Mob”: Class, Skill and Community in the St. Louis General Strike of 1877.” Journal of Social History 19, no. 2 (1985): 213-39. Accessed July 15, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/3787468.
5. Jentz, John B., and Richard Schneirov. “Combat in the Streets: The Railroad Strike of 1877 and Its Consequences.” In Chicago in the Age of Capital: Class, Politics, and Democracy during the Civil War and Reconstruction, 194-219. University of Illinois Press, 2012. Accessed July 16, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt2ttbkb.11.
6. Illinois Staats-Zeitung, July 25, 1877. (From Chicago in the Age of Capital)
7. Hacker, Barton C. “The United States Army as a National Police Force: The Federal Policing of Labor Disputes, 1877-1898.” Military Affairs 33, no. 1 (1969): 255-64. Accessed July 17, 2020. doi:10.2307/1984485.
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