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This Day in Labor History: July 14, 1877

[ 42 ] July 14, 2011 |

On July 14, 1877, the Great Railroad Strike began in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

After the Civil War, industrialists engaged in an enormous rail building program. Much of this was funded through shaky and corrupt means, leading to the Panic of 1873. When the bubble burst in 1873, many railroads went bankrupt and those who survived forced workers to bear the brunt of cutbacks. Throughout the nation, rail workers became increasingly angry. Feeling like they had no power to lead dignified lives and betrayed by the new capitalist system of the age, desperation set in.

The Pennsylvania Railroad led the charge in oppressing workers. It forced workers to accept pay cut after pay cut and then doubled the length of runs with no increase in crew size. Other railroads quickly followed suit in a race to the bottom. In Martinsburg, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad forced its workers to accept their second pay cut in a year. This broke the camel’s back and workers walked out. Rail workers on big lines had a lot of potential power because if they refused to allow trains to roll on a given line, it would disrupt traffic across the country. They knew this and used this tactic.

The strike quickly spread across the nation. Within days, 100,000 workers were on strike, with many more unemployed on the picket lines in support. In Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois especially, workers halted the nation’s rail traffic, bringing the country to a screeching halt.

The strike didn’t last too long (45 days) and the workers didn’t succeed. Nonetheless, it is one of the most important events in labor history for two reasons. It was the first mass action of industrial workers in American history, which scared the hell out of the capitalists. It now seemed America was susceptible to what were considered foreign ideologies from Europe. Second, the capitalists set the tone for dealing with striking labor throughout the Gilded Age–crush it with violence.

Wrote an anonymous Baltimore merchant, sympathetic to the strike: “The strike is not a revolution of fanatics willing to fight for an idea. It is a revolt of working men against low prices of labor, which have not been accomplished with corresponding low prices of food, clothing and house rent.”

On the other hand, many Americans were outraged. “It was evident,” said the Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States, published in 1877, “that there were agencies at work outside the workingmen’s strike. The people engaged in these riots were not railroad strikers. The Internationalists had something to do with creating scenes of bloodshed…. The scenes…in the city of Baltimore were not unlike those which characterized the events in the city of Paris during the reign of the Commune in 1870.”

Thomas Alexander Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, said that strikers should receive “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” His hopes were answered in Pittsburgh on July 21 when militiamen fired on strikers, killing 20. In response, workers went ballistic, burning 39 buildings and over 1400 rail cars. The next day, militamen struck again, killing another 20 workers. In Reading, state troopers killed 16 people. In Chicago, nearly 20 died after the mayor called for a volunteer militia to crush the strike.

Judge Thomas Drummond of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ordered federal marshals to protect the railroads from the strikers, saying ” “A strike or other unlawful interference with the trains will be a violation of the United States law, and the court will be bound to take notice of it and enforce the penalty.” Finally, President Rutherford B. Hayes called out the U.S. military to end the strike, setting another precedent–that the federal government would openly side with corporations over workers, no matter how legitimate their grievances.

Railroad workers would remain among the most volatile laborers for the next half a century. At the front lines of an industry rife with corruption, questionable business decisions, and thin profit margins, they would feel the brunt of the American boom and bust cycle. Building off their experiences in 1877, they would remain at the forefront of American radicalism for decades to come.

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Comments (42)

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  1. Hogan says:

    “The scenes…in the city of Baltimore were not unlike those which characterized the events in the city of Paris during the reign of the Commune in 1870.”

    Oh if only . . .

    Happy Bastille Day, everyone! Aux armes, citoyens!

  2. R. Porrofatto says:

    Thanks for the labor history reminders. Not that any Limbaugh listener would ever realize just how hard-won his middle-class lifestyle is and by whom, but worth remembering nevertheless.

  3. These have been useful and informative. I was a pretty conservative teen growing up, so my default attitude for years was a skepticism toward labor unions. Reading things like this is broadening my horizons.

  4. NBarnes says:

    In response, workers went ballistic, burning 39 buildings and over 1400 rail cars.

    *clutches pearls*

    Oh, the violence of labor types! Why can’t they just be more polite about the pay cuts they’re being unilaterally forced to take? Then their employers wouldn’t be forced to secure their labor by force.

  5. Will says:

    I love reading these stories, especially since my father was a union man. It is amazing just how far apart our national myth and the actual reality is.

  6. JRoth says:

    There are a dozen or so historic markers regarding the Strike at relevant sites in Pittsburgh. What’s interesting to me is that A. although they appear to be official PA Historic & Museum Commission signs, they’re a different format from the usual markers, and B. they’re quite verbose, detailing exactly what was going on, for the clear reason that the facts of the matter have been quashed over the decades.

    They were installed in the past decade or so.

  7. dave3544 says:

    Looks like I missed some quality trolling.

  8. [...] This Day in Labor History: July 14, 1877 : Lawyers, Guns & Money The [Great Railroad Strike of 1877] didn’t last too long (45 days) and the workers didn’t succeed. Nonetheless, it is one of the most important events in labor history for two reasons. It was the first mass action of industrial workers in American history, which scared the hell out of the capitalists. It now seemed America was susceptible to what were considered foreign ideologies from Europe. Second, the capitalists set the tone for dealing with striking labor throughout the Gilded Age–crush it with violence. [...]

  9. [...] editions of this series have discussed Homestead and the Great Railroad Strike. Share and [...]

  10. [...] most northern white Republican leaders in the late 1870s. He also ordered U.S. troops to crush the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, beginning a long tradition of American politicians marshaling the army or national guard to serve [...]

  11. [...] series has also covered such events as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the creation of the CIO in [...]

  12. [...] series has also discussed the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Oakland General Strike of [...]

  13. [...] used the power of the state to crush labor unions. President Hayes called in the Army to break the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; President Cleveland did the same against the Pullman strikers in [...]

  14. [...] 6, 1892–The Homestead Strike July 12, 1917–The Bisbee Deportation July 14, 1877–The Great Railroad Strike September 9, 1739–The Stono Rebellion September 17, 1989–The Pittston Strike October [...]

  15. Nathanael says:

    It’s worth noting that this was crushed by RutherFRAUD B. Hayes, who both stole the Presidential election and did so in a dirty deal where he abandoned the rights of blacks and legitimized the violent “white power” coups which had taken place in the South.

    Vicious people don’t change their stripes.

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  18. Russ Thompson says:

    This is helpful with my paper which I have to do 1500 words in one day.

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  20. L2P says:

    Oddly, in Erik’s post itself I find this line: “His hopes were answered in Pittsburgh on July 21 when militiamen fired on strikers, killing 20. The next day, militamen struck again, killing another 20 workers. In Reading, state troopers killed 16 people. In Chicago, nearly 20 died after the mayor called for a volunteer militia to crush the strike.”

    The “destroyed private property” comes after the “securing their labor by force.” If “destroying public property” means “not wishing to work for starvation wages so a capitalist can make a profit,” then . . . I guess you have the right answer. Otherwise, not as such.

  21. dave3544 says:

    I want to be clear here. Are you suggesting that the penalty for being in a crowd that may or may not also have in it people responsible for destruction of property is summary execution by firing squad? That employer and government troops have the right to shoot striking workers if there is some destruction of property associated with the strike?

    See, I tend to think that if workers go out on strike and the bosses and the military make it clear that they will continue shooting the striking workers until they go back to work, we can call that “securing their labor by force.”

    Unless, as you sort of hint, you don’t think workers have the right to strike or “disrupt industry” when they have their pay cut. If that the case, well then what compels a worker to stay on the job other than the threat of force?

  22. Erik Loomis says:

    So what precisely were they supposed to do?

  23. Hogan says:

    How do you think they stopped all train traffic? With a sign? A wave of the hand?

    Who do you think operated the trains? The board of directors?

  24. dave3544 says:

    They did walk off the job. The employers asked the government to force them back on the job by shooting them and threatening to keep shooting them. The government did. The workers went back to work.

    Not sure what’s so hard to understand.

    In case there’s some confusion, railroad work was not unskilled work. There were not large masses of men just waiting to run these trains. The workers walked off the job, gathered in protest of the wage cuts (they do have the right to gather, do they not?) and got shot for their troubles. The shootings, of course, were just the most shocking things. There were your assorted beatings, arrests for no cause, etc., etc. as well.

  25. L2P says:

    You mean, like, a strike? Like the one that they, you know, DID? Like the strike that ended after the bosses called in the militia and the national guard to, uh, shoot anyone who was gathering to protest wage cuts?

    If you don’t think workers have the right to join together to protest working conditions, just say so.

  26. DrDick says:

    There you go, trying to confuse the issue with your facts and logic! Everybody knows corporate management in this country has never been less than completely benevolent with the best interests of their worker at heart. If they had to repeatedly cut wages for the workers and extend hours, they just did not have any choice, anymore than those poor beleaguered CEOs had any choice about shipping our manufacturing jobs overseas to countries with abysmally low wages an no labor or environmental laws to mention.

  27. rumor says:

    That is a *fantastic* dodge.

    My hat is off to you for your lack of integrity.

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