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This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886

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On March 6, 1886, the Great Southwest Strike began, marking the start of a year of worker revolt against the exploitation of Gilded Age capitalism. Over 200,000 railroad workers went on strike, but the failure to win helped usher in the decline of the Knights of Labor.

The widely and publicly loathed Jay Gould was one of the leading railroad capitalists and financiers in the United States and he had invested heavily in the massive expansion of railroads into the southwest after the Civil War. This rapid expansion gave workers some level of power and for awhile they achieved good wages. But Gould’s managers consistently sought to cut costs and gain power over workers they thought far too independent.

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Jay Gould

By 1885, Gould had succeeded in gaining control over many of his competitors and he started looking to cut labor costs. That year though, railroad workers had success striking against Gould-owned railroads. Management attempts to cut wages sent workers off the job and the Knights of Labor, a rising labor organization attempted to organize all workers, stepped in and helped negotiate a settlement that included rehiring strikers and paying back wages. Specifically, Terence Powderly personally sat down with Gould and convinced him to grant the workers’ demands. Defeating Gould was the biggest victory the Knights would ever achieve. Feeling hope that a national organization could fight for their demands, hundreds of thousands of American workers joined the Knights in the next few months.

Gould however was not going to take his defeat lying down. He was determined to crush the Knights. The managers’ war on independent labor continued and another strike quickly seemed likely. As these things often go, the strike itself started over an isolated incident. In Marshall, Texas, a Knights member attended a union meeting on work time. He was fired and his fellow workers walked off their job to demand he be rehired. The strike spread like wildfire among workers infuriated with Gould for the terrible wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions along his rail line. Within days, the strike had spread across Texas and into Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

This became the largest of the nation’s 1400 strikes in 1886. Eventually, 200,000 workers (out of a total of 700,000 Knights members that year) went on strike. The strikers were hurt by the lack of solidarity from other unions, as the skilled labor union The Brotherhood of Engineers continued to work. On the other hand, one of the leaders Texas Farmers’ Alliance, William Lamb, declared a boycott of the railroads in support of the strikers, although this was controversial within the Alliance. The rapid growth of the Knights also was a problem. Powderly was generally opposed to strikes and the new members didn’t understand that the Knights actually had a pretty limited vision for labor reform that did not include very much direct action. While Powderly’s role in the strike is not entirely clear, he did not approve of the second strike, certainly did not grant it very strong support and stayed mostly hands off. In any case, when he did reach out to Gould to hash this new strike out, the plutocrat refused, seeking to crush the union entirely. Perhaps apocryphally, he said about the workers, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

Ultimately, the strikers had trouble maintaining the popular support necessary to overcome the overwhelming odds against organized labor in the Gilded Age. This certainly wasn’t because everyday people loved Jay Gould. He was largely considered a villain at the time as he is today. But people were so reliant on the railroad for goods and transportation that the shutdown of the system made their lives difficult. And if we know one thing about labor struggles today, it’s that for many people, their support of workers remains in the abstract and at the first moment they are personally inconvenienced, that theoretical support dries up. In popular opinion, strike leader Martin Irons began to be portrayed as Gould’s equal in oppressing the needs of the farmer, both monopolists of a sort, a sign of the limited ability for farmer-worker solidarity in these years.

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Martin Irons

Gould also worked with local politicians to crush the strike. The governor of Missouri called out the state militia, while the governor of Texas built on that by calling out the militia and the Texas Rangers. The governor of Kansas however refused, noting the lack of worker violence that Gould claimed was the reason for the troops. U.S. marshals also assisted in ensuring the trains ran. Gould also called in the Pinkertons. What did cause property destruction was the state repression, which led workers to retaliate by burning machine shops and letting train engines go cold, which delayed trains for hours until they warmed back up. In both Fort Worth, Texas and East St. Louis, Illinois, actual violence eventually took place against Gould’s hired thugs, leading to the death of at least nine workers. Shootouts began taking place between workers and trains running through the strike. But the violence caused by the Pinkertons and state forced workers back on the job. The strike was mostly over by May and accomplished little.

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Battle between workers and U.S. marshals at East St. Louis

This was the first major defeat for the Knights of Labor. Up to this point, it had seemed a growing force in American life. A few weeks after the strike’s defeat, the Knights convened a special assembly where it banned the organization from participating in strikes. This was a terrible idea as employers who had previously capitulated to the Knights immediately rolled back workers’ gains, knowing the central organization had taken away their best weapon to maintain those victories. Combined with the Haymarket incident shortly thereafter (Powderly himself refused to do anything for the anarchists thrown in prison for it), the corporate-dominated media was able to paint the Knights as violent radicals and public sympathy turned against them. Moreover, workers felt betrayed by Powderly for his actions during the year. The organization would decline soon after, with a loss of 90 percent of members by 1890, and the American Federation of Labor would rise in its place as the primary union organization of American workers, or at least the ones the AFL would accept.

Martin Irons would be banned from the Knights for leading this disastrous strike and was blacklisted from the railroad. He died in poverty in 1900.

This is the 135th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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