The great railroad strike, 1877 - Howard Zinn

Sketch of the Chicago Battle of the Viaduct during the Great Railroad Strike.

Howard Zinn's short history of the biggest industrial dispute in American history by that time, shutting down half the country's rail network.

Beginning with opposition to wage cuts and poor conditions the strikes led to near-insurrections in parts of Pennsylvania. Heavy repression hit the strikers and other American workers and despite winning some concessions eventually the strikes were broken, leaving 100 dead.

In the year 1877, the United States was in the depths of the Depression. That summer, in the hot cities where poor families lived in cellars and drank infested water, the children became sick in large numbers. The New York Times wrote: “…already the cry of the dying children begins to be heard. Soon, to judge from the past, there will be a thousand deaths of infants per week in the city.” That first week in July, in Baltimore, where all liquid sewage ran through the streets, 139 babies died.

That year there came a series of tumultuous strikes by railway workers in a dozen cities; they shook the nation as no labour conflict in its history had done.

It began with wage cuts on railway after railway, in tense situations of already low wages ($ 1.75 a day for brakemen working twelve hours), scheming and profiteering by the rail companies, deaths and injuries among the workers—loss of hands, feet, fingers, the crushing of men between cars.

At the Baltimore & Ohio station in Martinsburg, West Virginia, workers determined to fight the wage cut went on strike, uncoupled the engines, ran them into the roundhouse, and announced no more trains would leave Martinsburg until the 10% cut was cancelled. A crowd of support gathered, too many for the local police to disperse. B&0  officials asked the governor for military protection, and he sent in militia. A train tried to get through, protected by the militia, and a striker, trying to derail it, exchanged gunfire with a militiaman attempting to stop him. The striker was shot in his thigh and his arm. His arm was amputated later that day, and nine days later he died.

Six hundred freight trains now jammed the yards at Martinsburg. The West Virginia governor applied to newly elected President Rutherford Hayes for federal troops, saying the state militia was insufficient. In fact, the militia was not totally reliable, being composed of many railway workers. Much of the U.S. army was tied up in Indian battles in the West. Congress had not appropriated money for the army yet, hut J. P. Morgan, August Belmont, and other bankers now offered to lend money to pay army officers (but no enlisted men). Federal troops arrived in Martinshurg, and the freight cars began to move.

In Baltimore, a crowd of thousands sympathetic to the railway strikers surrounded the armoury of the National Guard, which had been called out by the governor at the request of the B&0 Railroad. The crowd hurled rocks, and the soldiers came out, firing. The streets now became the scene of a moving, bloody battle. When the evening was over, ten men or boys were dead, more badly wounded, one soldier wounded. Half of the 120 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.

By now, 15,000 people surrounded the depot. Soon, three passenger cars, the station platform, and a locomotive were on fire. The governor asked for federal troops, and Hayes responded. Five hundred soldiers arrived and Baltimore quieted down.

The rebellion of the rail workers now spread. Joseph Dacus, then editor of the St. Louis Republican, reported:

Strikes were occurring almost every hour. The great State of Pennsylvania was in an uproar; New Jersey was afflicted by a paralysing dread; New York was mustering an army of militia; Ohio was shaken from Lake Erie to the Ohio River; Indiana rested in a dreadful suspense. Illinois, and especially its great metropolis, Chicago, apparently hung on the verge of a vortex of confusion and tumult. St. Louis had already felt the effect of the premonitory shocks of the uprising.

The strike spread to Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Again, it happened outside the regular union, pent-up anger exploding without plan. Robert Bruce, historian of the 1877 strikes, writes (1877: Year of Violence,) about a flagman named Gus Harris. Harris refused to go out on a “double-header,” a train with two locomotives carrying a double length of cars, to which railroaders had objected because it required fewer workers and made the brakemen’s work more dangerous.

The decision was his own, not part of a concerted plan or a general understanding. Had he lain awake that past night, listening to the rain, asking himself if he dared quit, wondering if anyone would join him, weighing the chances? or had he simply risen to a breakfast that did not fill him, seen his children go off shabby and half-fed, walked brooding through the damp morning and then yielded impulsively to stored-up rage?

When Harris said he would not go, the rest of the crew refused too. The strikers now multiplied, joined by young boys and men from the mills and factories (Pittsburgh had 33 iron mills, 73 glass factories, 29 oil refineries, 158 coal mines). The freight trains stopped moving out of the city. The Trainman’s Union had not organised this, but it moved to take hold, called a meeting, invited “all workingmen to make common cause with their brethren on the railroad.”

Railway and local officials decided that the Pittsburgh militia would not kill their fellow townsmen, and urged that Philadelphia troops be called in. By now two thousand cars were idle in Pittsburgh. The Philadelphia troops came and began to clear the track. Rocks flew. Gunfire was exchanged between crowd and troops. At least ten people were killed, all workingmen, most of them not railroaders.

Now the whole city rose in anger. A crowd surrounded the troops, who moved into a roundhouse. Railroad cars were set afire, buildings began to burn, and finally the roundhouse itself, the troops marching out of it to safety. There was more gunfire, the Union Depot was set afire, thousands looted the freight cars. A huge grain elevator and a small section of the city went up in flames. In a few days, twenty-four people had been killed (including four soldiers). Seventy-nine buildings had been burned to the ground. Something like a general strike was developing in Pittsburgh: mill workers, car workers, miners, labourers, and the employees at the Carnegie steel plant.

The entire National Guard of Pennsylvania, nine thousand men, was called out. But many of the companies couldn’t move as strikers in other towns held up traffic. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, one National Guard company mutinied and marched through an excited town. In Altoona, troops surrounded by rioters, immobilised by sabotaged engines, surrendered, stacked arms, fraternised with the crowd, and then were allowed to go home, to the accompaniment of Singing by a quartet in an all-Negro militia company.

In Harrisburg, the state capital, as at so many places, teenagers made up a large part of the crowd, which included some Negroes. Philadelphia militia, on their way home from Altoona, shook hands with the crowd, gave up their guns, marched like captives through the streets, were fed at a hotel and sent home. The crowd agreed to the mayor’s request to deposit the surrendered guns at the city hall. Factories and shops were idle. After some looting, citizens’ patrols kept order in the streets through the night.

Where strikers did not manage to take control, as in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, it may well have been because of disunity. The spokesman of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company in that town wrote: “The men have no organisation, and there is too much race jealousy existing among them to permit them to form one.”

In Reading, Pennsylvania, there was no such problem—90%were native-born, the rest mostly German. There, the railway was two months behind in paying wages, and a branch of the Trainman’s Union was organised. Two thousand people gathered, while men who had blackened their faces with coal dust set about methodically tearing up tracks, jamming switches, derailing cars, setting fire to cabooses and also to a railway bridge.

A National Guard company arrived, fresh from duty at the execution of the Molly Maguires. The crowd threw stones, fired pistols. The soldiers fired into the crowd. “Six men lay dead in the twilight,” Bruce reports, “a fireman and an engineer formerly employed in the Reading, a carpenter, a huckster, a rolling-mill worker, a labourer A policeman and another man lay at the point of death.” Five of the wounded died. The crowd grew angrier, more menacing. A contingent of soldiers announced it would not fire, one soldier saying he would rather put a bullet through the president of Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron. The 16th Regiment of the Morristown volunteers stacked its arms. Some militia threw their guns away and gave their ammunition to the crowd. When the Guardsmen left for home, federal troops arrived and took control, and local police began making arrests.

Meanwhile the leaders of the big railway brotherhoods, the Order of Railway Conductors, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the Brotherhood of Engineers, disavowed the strike. There was talk in the press of “communistic ideas . . . widely entertained . . . by the workmen employed in mines and factories and by the railroads.”

In fact, there was a very active Workingrnen’s party in Chicago, with several thousand members, most of them immigrants from Germany and Bohemia. It was connected with the First International in Europe. In the midst of the railroad strikes, that summer of 1877, it called a rally. Six thousand people came and demanded nationalisation of the railways. Anarchist and Haymarket Martyr-to-be Albert Parsons gave a fiery speech. He was from Alabama, had fought in the Confederacy during the Civil War, married a brown-skinned woman of Spanish and Indian blood, Lucy Parsons, worked as a typesetter, and was one of the best English-speaking orators the Workingmen’s party had.

The next day, a crowd of young people, not especially connected with the rally of the evening before, began moving through the railroad yards, closed down the freights, went to the factories, called out the mill workers, the stockyard workers, the crewmen on the Lake Michigan ships, closed down the brickyards and lumberyards. That day also, Albert Parsons was fired from his job with the Chicago Times and declared blacklisted.

The police attacked the crowds. The press reported: “The sound of clubs falling on skulls was sickening for the first minute, until one grew accustomed to it. A rioter dropped at every whack, it seemed, for the ground was covered with them.” Two companies of U.S. infantry arrived, joining National Guardsmen and Civil War veterans. Police fired into a surging crowd, and three men were killed.

The next day, an armed crowd of 5,000 fought the police. The police fired again and again, and when it was over, and the dead were counted, they were, as usual, workingmen and boys, eighteen of them, their skulls smashed by clubs, their vital organs pierced by gunfire.

The one city where the Workingmen’s party clearly led the rebellion was St. Louis, a city of flour mills, foundries, packing houses, machine shops, breweries, and railroads. Here, as elsewhere, there were wage cuts on the railways. And here there were perhaps a thousand members of the Workingmen’s party, many of them bakers, coopers, cabinetmakers, cigarmakers, brewery workers. The party was organised in four sections, by nationality: German, English, French, Bohemian.

All four sections took a ferry across the Mississippi to join a mass meeting of railway men in East St. Louis. One of their speakers told the meeting: “All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea—that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.” Railroaders in East St. Louis declared themselves on strike. The mayor of East St. Louis was a European immigrant, himself an active revolutionist as a youth, and railroad men’s votes dominated the city.

In St. Louis, itself, the Workingmen’s parts called an open-air mass meeting to which five thousand people came. The party was clearly in the leadership of the strike. Speakers, excited by the crowd, became more militant: “ has changed liberty into serfdom, and we must fight or die.” They called for nationalisation of the railroads, mines, and all industry.

At another huge meeting of the Workingmen’s parts a black man spoke for those who worked on the steamboats and levees. He asked: “Will you stand to us regardless of colour?” The crowd shouted back: “We will!” An executive committee was set up, and it called for a general strike of all branches of industry in St. Louis.

Handbills for the general strike were soon all over the city. There was a march of four hundred Negro steamboat men and roustabouts along the river, six hundred factory-workers carrying a banner: “No Monopoly— Workingmen’s Rights.” A great procession moved through the city, ending with a rally of ten thousand people listening to Communist speakers: “The people are rising up in their might and declaring they will no longer submit to being oppressed by unproductive capital.”

David Burbank, in his book on the St. Louis events, Reign of the Rabble, writes:

Only around St. Louis did the original strike on the railroads expand into such a systematically organized and complete shut-down of all industry that the term general strike is fully justified. And only there did the socialists assume undisputed leadership. . . . no American city has come so close to being ruled by a workers’ soviet, as we would now call it, as St. Louis, Missouri, in the year 1877.

In New York, several thousand gathered at Tompkins Square. The tone of the meeting was moderate, speaking of “a political revolution through the ballot box.” And: “If you will unite, ‘we may have here within five years a socialistic republic. . . . Then will a lovely morning break over this darkened land.” It was a peaceful meeting. It adjourned. The last words heard from the platform were: “Whatever we poor men may not have, we have free speech, and no one can take it from us.” Then the police charged, using their clubs.

In St. Louis, as elsewhere, the momentum of the crowds, the meetings, the enthusiasm, could not be sustained. As they diminished, the police, militia, and federal troops moved in and the authorities took over. The police raided the headquarters of the Workingmen’s party and arrested seventy people; the executive committee that had been for a while virtually in charge of the city was now in prison. The strikers surrendered; the wage cuts remained; 131 strike leaders were fired by the Burlington Railroad.

When the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused into action countless unemployed in the cities. More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes.

The railroads made some concessions, withdrew some wage cuts, but also strengthened their “Coal and Iron Police.” In a number of large cities, National Guard armouries were built, with loopholes for guns. Robert Bruce believes the strikes taught many people of the hardships of others, and that they led to congressional railroad regulation. They may have stimulated the business unionism of the American Federation of Labor as well as the national unity of labour proposed by the Knights of Labor, and the independent labour-farmer parties of the next two decades.

In 1877, the same year blacks learned they did not have enough strength to make real the promise of equality in the Civil War, working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power. But there was more to come.

This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States. We heartily recomment you buy A People's History of the United States now. OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added