The US national railroad strike, 1920 - Jeremy Brecher

A group of American rail workers in 1919

A short history of the nationwide wildcat strike of US rail workers in 1920, which won pay increases despite being viciously undermined by the trade unions.

Submitted by Steven. on July 22, 2013

If you enjoyed this book, please purchase Strike! by Jeremy Brecher here.

There were a large number of strikes in 1919, many of which were "outlaw" or wildcat strikes, opposed as heartily by the unions as by the employers. These spread even to such citadels of trade union authority as the printing trades. But the most important of all was on the railroads.

For practical purposes, the right of railroad workers to strike did not exist after the Federal suppression of the Pullman strike. The unions generally supported this state of affairs. Thus those railroad strikes which occurred met the opposition not only of the railroads but of the unions and the government. This was all the more true during the war and post-war period because the railroads were under Federal control until March, 1920. Discontent rose with the cost of living; by April, 1920, prices had risen one hundred percent since 1914, railroad wages only fifty percent.1 After April, 1919, the government refused all requests for wage increases. According to Commons' History of Labor in the United States, "in the minds of the men the pent-up resentment against this injustice became directed not only against the dilatory government officials and railway managers but also against their own union officials who apparently bore this situation with a patience unbecoming. . . "2

In this charged situation, a railroad worker named John Gru-nau, a leader of an insurgent Chicago Yardmen's Association, was demoted in the Chicago yards on April 2nd.3 The 700 switchmen on his line immediately walked out in protest. The strike crystallized the general discontent of the railroad workers, and within two days every railroad in the Chicago area was involved in the strike, with 9,000 switchmen out. By April 9th, the strike had spread spontaneously across the country, reaching New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha and Detroit. Engineers, conductors and firemen joined the striking switchmen.

In the midst of the strike the workers created several temporary organizations. For instance, 1,700 workers on nine railroads entering Cleveland voted to form a Cleveland Yardmen's Association. Similar organizations developed in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Kansas City; representatives from these various groups met in Washington and formed a national alliance of striking switchmen and yardmen. Sylvia Kopald describes the best-known of the outlaw organizations, the United Railway Workers of America, thus:

Originating among the Jersey strikers, this organization, according to the statements of its accredited spokesmen, was not intended to continue after the strike. The organization had no central direction. At its head stood an Executive Committee of 15 men, including a chairman and a secretary who were chosen from the members of a General Strike committee. This latter committee in turn was composed of representatives elected [rom the various roads, each of which contributed 18, or three for each craft (yardmasters, engineers, firemen, conductors, road workmen and yard service men). The Executive Committee was vested with power to "conduct the strike and make such moves as seem advisable to carry it to a successful conclusion." Its actual power, however, was drastically limited by the fact that it could take no important action without the express authorization of a general meeting.4

The railway unions launched a bitter drive against the strike. Dozens of union officials concentrated in Chicago and other strike centers ordered the men back to work, on the grounds that the strike violated union rules and contracts - although no contracts with the employers existed, the roads having just been returned from Federal control. They red-baited the strikers as Bolsheviks and charged them with destroying the union. They threatened the strikers with expulsion if they did not return to work, and actually applied this penalty to tens of thousands of workers.

Finally, the union leaders themselves recruited hundreds of strikebreakers. For example, a Chicago officer of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen wired all member unions outside Chicago to send switchmen to "break .the strike of Grunau's rival organization."5 An official of the Order of Railway Conductors wired members, "Strike is illegal, against our Brotherhoods and against railroads. Our existence is at stake. Our members justified under the circumstances in working in yard and road service to help us save our organization."6 Even those who did not join the strike resented this practice, however; as a union official reported of his meetings with his rank and file:

Many members present showed a strong sympathy for the striking switchmen and said they would not work with "scabs" or "finks." It was impossible to convince our members at this stage of the illegal strike that men who took the switchmen's places were not scabs or finks and that they were friends of bona fide organizations helping them to maintain their contracts which were made by their duly authorized representatives.7

At another meeting, he reported, the principal topic was "the stated fear and undesire of our men to work with what they called 'finks.' "8

Finally, the power of the state was turned against the strikers. Attorney General Palmer attacked the strike leaders as I.W.W.'s and Reds. On April 15th he had twenty-three strike leaders in Chicago arrested on charges of violating the Lever and Sherman Acts, and there were arrests and raids on meetings in Cleveland, New Orleans and other cities as well.

The strike succeeded in forcing President Wilson to appoint a Railroad Labor Board. The Board strengthened the hands of the official unions by agreeing to meet exclusively with them and refusing even to hear the outlaws. It granted a general wage increase in July. With the combined pressure of repression and concession, the strike gradually faded as positions were filled by strikebreakers or men returning to work.

This text has been excerpted from Jeremy Brecher's excellent book, Strike! and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone text by

  • 1 Kopald, Rebellion, p. 128.
  • 2Commons, Vol. IV- p. 453.
  • 3 1920 – libcom note.
  • 4Kopald, Rebellion, p. 141.
  • 5Ibid., p. 151.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 152.
  • 7Report of Jonas McBride, reprinted in Pres. Carter's "May Bulletin," cited in Kopald, p. 154.
  • 8Ibid.