Monday, December 8, 2014

Overview of Major Railroad Strikes in U.S. History

Over a period of many decades from the mid-1800's thru the mid 1900's, unions paved the road to the middle class for millions of working families. Millions of workers laid their lives on the line to make it happen. With the passing of time, however, the history of the struggle to obtain a better life for all working Americans has been forgotten by many.

The following are short profiles on some of the major Railroad Strikes in U.S. history that brought about major changes in working conditions for the millions that now make up the American working middle class.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
In the year 1877, the country was in the depths of a depression. That year came a series of tumultuous strikes by railroad workers in a dozen cities that shook the nation as no other labor conflict in history had done.  The strikes began with wage cuts by railroad company after railroad company in an environment of profiteering by companies even as injuries and deaths among railroad workers occurred with ever increasing frequency.

 At the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) station in Martinsburg, West Virginia, workers determined to fight the wage cuts went on strike. They uncoupled engines and ran them into the Roundhouse and announced no more trains would leave Martinsburg. B&O company officials asked the Governor to intervene and send troops. A striker was shot and killed. But, the strike continued and over 600 freight trains were idled in the Martinsburg train yard.

The Governor eventually called upon President Rutherford Hayes to send in federal troops. The owners of B&O offered to lend money to the government to pay the army officers.  When the troops finally arrived, the trains were able to move again with the help of strike breakers that had been brought in from Baltimore.

However, in Baltimore, a crowd of thousands sympathetic to the railroad strikers surrounded the armory of the National Guard that had been called out by the Governor in support of the B&O Railroad. A bloody confrontation took place in which 20 strikers were killed. The enraged crowd of protestors went on to the train depot and tore up tracks, destroyed a train engine and several passenger cars. The arrival of 500 federal troops finally brought order to the situation. However, strike by railroad workers now spread to other parts of the country. 

The strike spread to Pittsburg and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Railroad strikers were joined by sympathizers from nearby mills and factories. Local militia would not attack workers that were fellow townsmen, so railroad and government officials brought troops in from Philadelphia to clear the tracks. In the process they killed at least 10 workers. The whole city arose in anger and a large crowd surrounded the troops and trapped them in the Roundhouse.  The crowd set railroad cars and several buildings on fire. More National Guard troops were called up, but many of the companies would not move against their fellow citizens.

The strike continued to spread to Harrisburg, Reading, and elsewhere. Police and state militia were again called upon to battle the crowds, killing several workers. This did nothing but further enrage many others. B&O officials and the press continued to talk about the 'communistic' beliefs of union workers. Federal troops finally arrived to help quell the situation.

The strike spread to Chicago and local police and troops were brought in to battle the strikers and sympathetic crowds. Again, the result was 18 dead workers. St. Louis then erupted. Here, too, railroad companies had cut wages. The railroad was effectively shut down. Eventually, police and troops were used to end the strikes over time. News of the railroad strikes spread to Europe.
When the great railroad strike of 1877 was over, 100 people were dead, over 1,000 people were jailed, and over 100,000 workers had gone out on strike. More than half the freight on the nation's rails had been stopped. The railroad companies made some concessions, withdrew some wage cuts, but they had not really learned any lessons about working with unions and treating workers fairly. Instead, they beefed up their internal company police forces, helped the government strengthen National Guard armories, increased political lobbying efforts, and began further preparations to break the unions.   For more information, see

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 was a labor union strike against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads involving more than 200,000 workers. In March 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest United States conducted an unsuccessful strike against railroads owned by Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the 'robber baron' industrialists of the day. The failure of the strike led directly to the collapse of the Knights of Labor and the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

The strike began when a member of the Knights of Labor in Marshall, Texas was fired for attending a union meeting on company time. The local chapter of the Knights called a strike. Soon, more than 200,000 workers were on strike in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. Although the dismissal of the railroad worker in Texas had sparked the initial strike, wages, hours and unsafe working conditions motivated most of the strikers.
From the start there were problems. The Brotherhood of Engineers refused to honor the strike, and its members kept working. Meanwhile, Gould immediately hired strikebreakers to work the railroad. After several incidents of 'union violence' occurred, Jay Gould requested military assistance from the governors of the affected states. The governor of Missouri mobilized the state militia; the governor of Texas mobilized both the state militia and the Texas Rangers.
The exercise of police power by the states on behalf of the railroad companies led union members to retaliate. Switching houses were burned, mechanic shops wrecked and trains uncoupled. Shots were fired at a moving train in Missouri. As the violence spread, public opinion turned against the workers. Physical attacks by the Pinkerton agents scared thousands of workers into returning to work.

The strike eventually petered out in late summer of 1886. As a result of their success in breaking the strike, employers adopted a model for stamping out strikes that called for holding firm and calling for government troops.  See

The  Infamous Pullman Railroad Strike

The Great Northern Railroad had begun cutting wages in August of 1893, with more cuts made in January and in March of 1894. In April, American Railroad Union (ARU) workers voted to strike. The Great Northern was completely shut down for 18 days, and wages were restored as a result of an arbitration award. Workers were joining the ARU at the rate of 2,000 a day.

The Pullman Palace Car workers were among them. The Pullman shop workers went on a strike of their own, also against wage cuts, in May of 1894. After hearing a stirring address by Jennie Curtis, the youthful leader of the women workers in the Pullman Shops, a convention of the ARU voted to support the Pullman workers by refusing to work any trains that included Pullman cars. 

The Pullman Strike escalated into a nation-wide struggle between the railroad companies and the ARU. The union boycott of Pullman cars was extremely effective, particularly on the transcontinental lines extending west from Chicago. All traffic on the 24 railroad lines leading out of Chicago came to a halt.  See

The Railroad Managers however, had an association of their own, and they saw an opportunity to crush the infant ARU. They agreed to pay 2,000 deputies that would be sent in to break up the strike. Their other strategy was to order Pullman cars hooked to U.S. Mail trains. The ARU members would then refuse to work the mail train. This development quickly brought the government into the case on the side of the railroad companies.

Over the objections of Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld President Cleveland ordered federal troops into Chicago and other points to insure the passage of the mail trains. Mobs of workers assaulted the strikebreakers and troops. Tracks were blocked and freight cars were derailed or burned by strikers. The court issued an injunction against the ARU and its forbade its leaders to communicate with the members, not even to order a stop to the violence. Eugene Debs was arrested for alleged conspiracy to interfere with the mail and violation of the injunction. He was jailed for six months.

Approximately 14,000 federal troops and state militia moved in and 34 people were killed and over 700 arrested. The boycott collapsed and the American Railway Union was destroyed, just as the railway companies had hoped. The strike at Pullman was one of many defeat for the union. For more detail, read

The  Great Railroad Strike of 1922 

The Great Railroad Strike of 1922, a nationwide railroad shop workers strike in the U.S., began on July 1 and was the largest railroad work stoppage since 1894.  The immediate cause of the strike was the Railroad Labor Board's announcement that hourly wages would be cut by seven cents July 1, which prompted the shop workers vote to strike. The operators' unions, representing the engineers, trainmen, firemen, and conductors, did not join in the strike.
The railroad companies employed strikebreakers to fill three-fourths of the roughly 400,000 vacated positions, increasing hostilities between the railroads and the striking workers. By the end of July, National Guard troops were also called up in seven states and some 2,200 deputy U.S. marshals were actively clamping down on meetings and pickets.
President Warren G. Harding proposed a settlement on July 28 which would have granted little to the unions, but the railroad companies rejected the compromise despite interest from the desperate workers. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty, who opposed the unions, pushed for national action against the strike. On September 1, a federal judge named James H. Wilkerson issued a sweeping injunction against striking, assembling, picketing, and a variety of other union activities. It was known as the "Daugherty Injunction."
There was widespread opposition to the injunction and a number of sympathy strikes shut down some railroads completely, but the strike eventually died out as many shop workers made deals with the railroads on the local level. The often unpalatable concessions — coupled with memories of the violence and tension during the strike — soured relations between the railroads and the railroad shop workers for quite some time. 

* Make sure you visit the History of the U.S.Railroad & Rail Worker web site.

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