July 16, 1877: Firemen and brakemen for the Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio Railroads refused to work, and refused to let replacements take their jobs. They managed to halt all railroad traffic at the Camden Junction just outside of Baltimore. The railroad companies had cut wages and shortened the workweek.
After a second pay cut in June, Pennsylvania RR announced that the same number of workers would be expected to service twice as many trains. The work stoppage spread west and eventually became the first nationwide strike.
The Great Strike of 1877
Remembering a Worker Rebellion
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, American workers exploded with rage — and the rulers of the nation feared the fury of the “terror” from within.
A headline in the Chicago Times in 1877 expressed the capitalists’ anxious outrage: “Terrors Reign, The Streets of Chicago Given Over to Howling Mobs of Thieves and Cutthroats.”
After three years, the nation still suffered through a major economic depression. A strike by railroad workers sparked a coast-to-coast conflagration, as workers driven by despair and desperation battled troops in the streets of major U.S. cities.
The foreign born were widely blamed for the unprecedented, collective expression of rage against economic hardship and injustice.
The ruling elite, badly shaken by the widespread protests, thought a revolution was underway. The New York Sun prescribed “a diet of lead for the hungry strikers.”
When the fires turned to cold ash and working-class families buried their dead, no one — neither labor nor capital — would be the same again.
If there ever was such a thing, this was no ordinary strike. It was an explosion of “firsts.”
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the first major strike in an industry that propelled America’s industrial revolution. It was the first national strike, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific. In some cities, especially St. Louis, the struggle became one of the nation’s first general strikes. This was the first major strike broken by the U.S. military. Probably in no other strike had so many working people met a violent death at the hands of the authorities.
BORN OF DEPRESSION
The Great Strike was a creature of one of the periodic economic downturns that have caused misery for working people throughout U.S. history.
A bank panic on Sept. 18, 1873 disintegrated into depression. “Weekly the layoffs, wage cuts, strikes, evictions, breadlines and hunger increased,” wrote Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais in Labor’s Untold Story. The winter of 1873-74, especially in large cities, was one of great suffering for the tens of thousands of unemployed workers and their families who were starving or on the brink of starvation.
As the depression stretched into 1874, the unemployed demanded work and unions fought wage cuts. But the depression itself became a powerful weapon in smashing unions.
Millions suffered through months upon months of mounting misery. “By 1877 there were as many as three million unemployed [roughly 27 percent of the working population],” according to Boyer and Morais. “Two-fifths of those employed were working no more than six to seven months a year and less than one-fifth was regularly working. And the wages of those employed had been cut by as much as 45 percent, often to little more than a dollar a day.” Newspapers reported cases of starvation and suicide.
Political crisis seemed to mirror the economic mess. Many Americans in 1877 believed their new president had reached the White House through fraud. Certainly Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican, was not the man for whom a majority of voters had cast their ballots the previous year. Democrat Samuel Tilden overcame the Ohio governor in the popular vote but 20 disputed electoral votes from Florida and other states threw the election into House of Representatives.
Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad reached a deal with Hayes: in exchange for a federal bailout of his troubled investment in the Texas and Pacific Railroad, the millionaire industrialist would deliver Congressional votes to Hayes. As a further inducement, the Republicans promised to end Reconstruction, a blatant betrayal of African Americans. Southern Congressmen deserted Tilden, handing the election to Hayes.
President Hayes withdrew federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction and its promise of political equality for former slaves. The troops would soon have other uses.
The Pennsylvania Railroad had already slashed wages by 10 percent when it cut wages by another 10 percent in June 1877. The following month that railroad company, the nation’s largest, announced that the size of all eastbound trains from Pittsburgh would be doubled, without any increase in the size of crews. Angry railroad workers took control of switches and blocked the movement of trains.
Meanwhile, on July 13, the Baltimore & Ohio cut the wages of all workers making more than a dollar a day, also by 10 percent. The company also reduced the workweek to only two or three days, a further pay cut. On July 16 firemen and brakemen refused to work. The company tried to bring on replacements — many experienced men were unemployed because of the depression — but the strikers assembled at Camden Junction, three miles from Baltimore, would not let trains run in any direction.
The word quickly spread to Martinsburg, W. Va., where workers abandoned their trains and prevented others from operating them. The railroad company appealed to the governor, who called out the militia. Militiamen and workers exchanged gunfire. The scabs ran off, the militia withdrew — and the strikers were left in control of their idled trains.
The strike swiftly followed the rails to Wheeling and Parkersburg. As Harper’s Weekly reported the following month, “Governor Matthews evoked the aid of the national government. President Hayes responded promptly.” Federal troops armed with Springfield rifles and Gatling guns arrived in Martinsburg on July 19. The show of force got the trains running, releasing the 13 locomotives and 1,500 freight cars bottled up in Martinsburg.
But the strike was far from over. “Indeed, it was barely begun,” reported Harper’s Weekly. “As fast as the strike was broken in one place it appeared in another,” wrote Boyer and Morais. The revolt against the powerful railroad companies spread into western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio.
Believing that strikers in Cumberland were stopping the eastbound trains from Martinsburg, Maryland’s governor ordered out the state militia. Thousands of the jobless and underpaid in Baltimore clearly saw whose interests the governor’s proclamation served.
Within a half hour of the call, “a crowd numbering at least 2,000 men, women, and children surrounded the [Maryland Sixth Regiment] armory and loudly expressed their feelings against the military and in favor of the strikers,” according to Harper’s Weekly. The crowd added bricks and stones to the curses hurled against the armory. The police were powerless.
Once the troops emerged for their march to Camden Station, shots were fired — and shots were exchanged. The militia killed at least 10 and wounded many others, among them curious onlookers. The Fifth Regiment was also attacked, although no shots were fired.
BATTLE IN PITTSBURGH
Sympathy for the strikers was even stronger in Pittsburgh. Here, said Boyer and Morais, the strike against Tom Scott’s Pennsylvania Railroad “had the support even of businessmen, angry at the company because of extortionate freight rates.” The police and local militia sided with the strikers, so the authorities had to appeal for troops from Philadelphia.
When the militiamen arrived and marched out of the station, they were met with the cries of an angry crowd — and, according to Harper’s, “a shower of stones.” They emptied their rifles into the crowd, killing 20 men, women and children and wounding 29. “The sight presented after the soldiers ceased firing was sickening,” reported the New York Herald; the area “was actually dotted with the dead and dying.”
A newspaper headline read: “Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia. The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand. The Slaughter of Innocents.”
As the news reached nearby rolling mills and manufacturing shops, workers came rushing to the scene. Workers broke into a gun factory and seized rifles and small arms. Wrote Boyer and Morais, “Miners and steel workers came pouring in from the outskirts of the city and as night fell the immense crowd proved so menacing to the soldiers that they retreated into the roundhouse.” By midnight, Harper’s said, some 20,000 surrounded the roundhouse, 5,000 of them armed.
Workers and soldiers exchanged gunfire throughout the night. The workers nearly succeeded in burning out the troops by sending a blazing oil car hurtling against a nearby building.
‘A NIGHT OF TERROR’
A Civil War veteran among the besieged troops told a New York Herald reporter that he had seen some “wild fighting” in that conflict, but “a night of terror such as last night I never experienced before and hope to God I never will again.”
The next morning the troops evacuated the roundhouse and fought their way out of town. Pittsburgh policemen were among those reportedly taking aim at the strikebreakers. The angry crowd then torched the railroad station, roundhouse, company offices and scores of railroad cars. The New York World told its readers that Pittsburgh was “in the hands of men dominated by the devilish spirit of Communism.”
Meanwhile, on July 21, President Hayes had issued a proclamation warning strikers and their sympathizers to disperse within 24 hours. The next day, Pennsylvania’s governor had ordered every regiment in the state to report for duty. Clashes between troops and strikers in Reading added to the death toll among workers.
CHICAGO AND ST. LOUIS
The strike continued to spread. Reported Harper’s, “On the morning of the 25th the strike had reached its height, when hardly a road was running, from the Hudson to the Mississippi, and from Canada to Virginia.”
The strike reached Chicago, as workers on the Michigan Central followed the example of the men on the other lines. General Sheridan’s calvary, newly recalled from the South, attacked a group of workers there, killing many and wounding many more.
The workers of the Missouri-Pacific Railroad joined the strike in St. Louis, where the Workingmen’s Party coordinated a general strike. The Workingmen’s Party had several thousand members. At one of its huge meetings, writes Marieke van Ophem, “a black man was the voice for those who worked on the steamboats and levees. He asked: ‘Will you stand to us, regardless of color?’ The crowd shouted in response: ‘We will!’”
Not only did the trains cease running, but breweries, flour mills, foundries and other shops stopped operating as well.
As a result of this working-class solidarity, bosses agreed to pay raises and shorter working hours without a reduction in wages.
Then the military arrived — the U.S. Army and state militia, as well as armed vigilantes in the service of the bosses.
Although there had been no violence, St. Louis came under martial law. Strike leaders were thrown in jail. Bosses canceled the wage increases and the eight-hour day.
‘SHOT BACK TO WORK’
Business leaders became better organized, rallying their political allies, who mobilized the might of the military. Tom Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad had recommended giving strikers “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread;” in the end, the government’s ability to inflict violence on strikers and supporters got the trains rolling again. As one worker put it, “We were shot back to work.” By early August the strike had collapsed everywhere.
It had been an unforgettable event, and many railroad workers seemed to have been justifiably proud. “Without any organization they had fought with bravery and skill and the country had been behind them,” wrote Boyer and Morais. “The strike had been as solid as it was spontaneous. There had been few desertions and few scabs.”
Some 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and countless unemployed workers in numerous cities had joined the strikers in protests against intolerable conditions. Farmers, who hated the railroad companies and their extortionate practices, fed the strikers.
More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track stopped moving.
More than 100 had died and 1,000 had been jailed, although those imprisoned were not the ones directly responsible for the deaths.
The results of the Great Strike were mixed.
GUNS AND PROMISES
Even as they agreed to some worker demands, bosses were determined to never again allow workers the upper hand. “The railroads made some concessions, rescinded some wage cuts, but also strengthened their ‘Coal and Iron Police,’” writes van Ophem. “In several large cities, National Guard armories were constructed, with loopholes for guns.”
Working people learned that without strong unions and nationwide organization they could not defeat the alliance of capital and government. Not all drew the same conclusions from this lesson. For some, the experience justified the development of a conservative business unionism that would not challenge the boss or promote social change. For others, it meant organizing the all-inclusive Knights of Labor on a national basis and building labor parties that would reorient government.
America’s Industrial Revolution was underway, and with it, born in the blood of men and women who yearned for a better life, a modern labor movement.
-Courtesy of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Read at the source.