Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886

This Day in Labor History: March 6, 1886


On March 6, 1886, the Great Southwestern 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.


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.


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.


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 a couple of months later (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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  • Bruce Vail

    minor cx: the engineers union was called the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, having been renamed such in the 1864 after being originally formed as the ‘Brotherhood of the Footboard’ in 1863.

    I believe the union — now called the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (affiliated with the Teamsters) — is the oldest extant labor union in the US today.

    This is another excellent piece, Erik. Thanks!

  • dn

    Another major episode that I’d never heard of before. No end to education. Thanks Erik!

  • LeeEsq

    Samuel Gompers thought that the idea of a worker-farmer alliance was ridiculous on the grounds that farmers were more like businessmen than workers even though they did physical labour. He probably had a point. I think that one reason socialism had a hard time finding ground in America was that America remained a very rural place until 1920. Many of the people living in rural areas were independent farmers or at least somewhat independent farmers who did operate a business. They weren’t going to be in perfect sympathy with labor because of this.

    • Vance Maverick

      Right, not just “very rural” — Russia was that — but organized around smallholdings. Which is why in the era of Big Agriculture, socialism is taking right off. Or possibly why I’m not a historian.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        All states where revolutionary socialists came to power on their own accord rather than due to the Soviet Red Army were very rural. Russia at only 80% rural was actually considerably more urbanized than places like China, Vietnam, Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique. The fact is that Lenin followed by Mao and Castro established models for siezing power in predominantly rural countries and using the state to promote industrialization after coming to power. This turns Marx on his head. But, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, the two most urbanized and industrialized socialist states did not become that way due to revolutions by factory workers and the states that had genuine revolutions like Cuba and North Vietnam did not have much in the way of an urban proletariat.

        • LeeEsq

          Cuba was a pretty urban place by the time of the 1959 Revolution. It’s just that the urban economy was in what we would call services.

          • Brett

            I got that. My dad had a friend (now dead) who went over to pre-Castro Havana as a young man. He said it was the “brothel capital of the world”.

      • LeeEsq

        Suburban homeownership can be seen as continuation of the smallholder society for a commercial-industrial republic.

      • Brett

        It’s more the type of agriculture. The countries where revolutionary socialists took over tended to be heavily rural with a large population of landless peasants/tenants/sharecroppers and a small, concentrated aristocracy/ownership. Land reform was always a popular appeal in that situation – IIRC the Bolsheviks initially won widespread support for promising “Land and Peace”.

        We’ve got Big Agriculture here in the US, but no real population of landless peasants hungry for their own holdings. Seems like we’ll just see more consolidation.

        • LeeEsq

          Right, this. The Latin American countries including the big immigrant receiving ones, Argentina and Brazil, had a munch more European somewhat feudal agricultural system with large estates worked by peasants/tenants/sharecroppers and owned by a semi-hereditary class of aristocrats or business people. America and Canada had tenant farmers and sharecroppers but also had many more farmers owning their land in fee simple absolute. America used to have a semi-hereditary class of landowners but only in part of the country and they were more or less decimated after the Civil War even if the hobbled on for a bit longer. There is also Hawaii but that is another issue. This defused a lot of the passions that led to revolutionary beliefs in overwhelmingly rural societies in America and Canada.

  • JL

    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.

    This is one of those balances that seems hard to predict. Disruption and inconvenience have long been major and successful tactics of social change, not just for labor but for other causes – the Montgomery Bus Boycott disrupted and inconvenienced the shit out of people – but also cause backlash (to use the same example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott caused a doubling of local White Citizens’ Council membership). When it works it’s retroactively whitewashed (almost nobody talks about all the innocent people who lost their jobs and/or their primary means of transit because of the Montgomery Bus Boycott) and when it doesn’t work (or is working but this is oblivious to certain sectors of the public) it’s seen as Bad Activists Who Don’t Care How They Hurt Innocent People.

    I think tactics should be chosen with a strategy in mind, but what’s going to work well enough to make it worth the backlash vs what’s going to cause so much backlash that it will overwhelm any gains is not the exact science that a lot of people (not you, Erik, I’m thinking of a million other conversations here) seem to think.

  • Bruce Vail

    Not very relevant:

    Jay Gould was described to us high school students in the 1970s as a loathsome crook, but not because of his violence against workers, but because of his alliance with Tammany Hall and his crooked Wall Street schemes.

    • rea

      Well, he doesn’t get a break from being a loathsome crook for Tammany Hall and his crooked Wall Street schemes just because he also committed atrocities against workers.

      “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”–Gould. Born 150 years too late–he’d be a Republican hero today.

      • Nick

        Today he’d say, “I can bring in half the working class as independent contractors to kill the other half.”

        • Marek


  • Joe_JP

    Jay Gould was once involved with Daniel Drew, who among other less savory things things, helped found what eventually became Drew University. The former governor of NJ, Tom Kean, used to be its president.

    • Bruce Vail

      Daniel Drew, was a major figure in the history of Carmel, NY, where I grew up, and a big financial supporter of the Methodist church.

      He paid for construction/operation of a Methodist seminary in Carmel there with his ill-gotten gains. He also financed construction of Drew Methodist Church, where I received early (ineffective) indoctrination in Christianity.

      Local lore has it that Drew perfected the practice of ‘watering stock.’ As a cattle drover, he would drive the stock to market but not allow them to drink any water until shortly before weighing time. He would then allow them to drink their fill: the thirsty cows would put on many additional pounds by filling up with water. Of course, ‘watering stock’ came to mean something else entirely in later years.

  • Phil Perspective

    Combined with the Haymarket incident a couple of months later (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.

    Corporate-dominated media? Some things never change!!!!!

  • Thanks for this, Erik. I just finished reading Richard White’s recent book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of America, which is excellent on all this.

    • Yeah, that’s where I took the bit about the public reaction thinking of the Knights as a type of monopoly.

  • gtd125

    Erik, I really enjoy these posts. Any chance you have a recommended reading list for someone trying to develop a good understanding of U.S. labor history? (Sorry if you’ve answered this question elsewhere. I was having finding it if you did.)

    • Funny you should mention that. Reminds me of a post I need to write.

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