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This Day in Labor History: March 7, 1905


On March 7, 1905, New York subway workers walked off the job. The city hired notorious strikebreaker James Farley to bust the strike, which he did with amazing speed, making himself one of the nation’s most famous men and the darling of the American industrial community. This incident is a useful window to explore strikebreaking in the early twentieth century.

People today have some knowledge of strikebreaking in American labor history, largely through the infamous Pinkerton Agency. The Pinkertons were hardly the only example of this though. The Baldwin-Felts Agency, for instance, became notorious for their violence and murders in the coal wars of southern Appalachia in the 1910s and early 1920s. But in the first decade of the twentieth century, it was James Farley who was the most famous strikebreaker, not the Pinkertons. James Farley was born into a working class Irish-American family in Malone, New York. He had a wild streak, once having ingested too much cocaine at the dentist’s office, where he supposedly went wild, ran into the woods, and was chased for several weeks. I suspect something is missing from this story. In any case, he ended up in Brooklyn without a penny, but he got work as a detective. That led him into strikebreaking in 1895, in the Brooklyn streetcar strike and then soon after again in a streetcar strike in Philadelphia. Transportation workers became his specialty. In 1899, he led a group of Philadelphia strikebreakers to Cleveland, where they took over the streetcars and ran them as scabs.

Farley professionalized strikebreaking; unlike the more famous agencies, he was the first to keep employed a professional army of thugs to bust strikes, as opposed to the previous norm of just getting together a rag-tag army of whoever when needed. He claimed to have thousands of men ready to work for him at any time and that’s probably not much of an exaggeration. When a company brought James Farley in to bust a strike, he required that they cede total control of the operations over to him. That was certainly happening by the time he busted the 1903 streetcar strike in Richmond, but may have been in effect during the 1902 Providence streetcar strike or a similar one in early 1903 in Waterbury, Connecticut. By November 1903, when Farley got involved in a Chicago streetcar strike, he was known as the “champion strikebreaker” in anti-union newspapers.

When the New York subway workers went on strike in 1905, Farley’s strikebreaking reached its apotheosis. He had the first strikebreakers on trains moving to New York a mere seven minutes after the strike began. 4,500 scabs were on the way soon. It reminded people of a military operation. Farley housed 2,000 of his men on a big ship docked in the Bronx. He headquartered himself in central Manhattan, where he could monitor the entire New York public transportation system, which included a subway system that moved 400,000 people a day and a streetcar system with 750,000 riders. Now, these scabs he hired to run the cars didn’t actually know how to drive a subway or streetcar. Farley didn’t care about dead passengers. He had one goal–to bust the strike. So his scabs in New York caused several serious accidents. One scab he brought in from Columbus was driving a subway car. He ignored four consecutive red lights on the track and plowed into the train ahead of him. Thirty passengers were seriously injured, although apparently none died. Moreover, Farley had all the emergency cords in the trains removed, fearful that strike sympathizers would pull them. Farley didn’t care about his own strikebreakers either (of course). It quickly became clear that epidemic disease would develop in New York if this strike continued long, with Farley’s men herded together like cattle in tight living quarters. It was a problem in many of the other actions he coordinated too. Moreover, the food was notoriously terrible, often filled with vermin. I hardly feel bad for a scab, but it’s indicative of how men like Farley thought about workers, even those he personally recruited to his cause. Farley also had the NYPD on his side. Of the city’s 5,500 officers in 1905, a full 3,200 of them were at his beck and call.

All of this was successful for Farley and the city. The New York subway strikers were defeated in a week. His techniques were so controversial that William Randolph Hearst, running for governor in 1906, tried to use Farley’s tactics against the Republican Charles Evans Hughes after the strikebreaker endorsed the Republican, but to no avail in the end.

After one more major strikebreaking effort, in San Francisco in 1907, Farley retired, a very wealthy man. By the time he died, Farley had a fortune that may have reached $6 million. He was notorious. In The Iron Heel, Jack London portrayed Farley as the main lackey of the capitalists who install the violent dictatorship called The Oligarchy, before he is assassinated in 1932 by the widow of a worker he had murdered in a strike thirty years earlier. That was James Farley’s reputation among unionists.

But Farley wouldn’t live long enough to fulfill London’s prophecy. He died in 1913 of tuberculosis, only 39 years old. At the very end, maybe thinking about his impending term in Hell, he rejected involvement in a Philadelphia streetcar strike, saying that this time the workers were in the right. There were plenty of other reason to believe Farley’s horrible actions had an impact on him. He had nightmares and hallucinations that the men he had ruined would come back to kill him. He liked to play the ponies, but wouldn’t go to a racetrack without a crew of ten bodyguards. One labor newspaper described Farley in his later years as “cringing alone in his palace, suspicious of every new face, staring at every unusual sound, fearful even of his own special protectors.” I hope the reality was even worse for this terrible, miserable human being.

I borrowed from Stephen Norwood, Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-Century America in the writing of this post.

This is the 258th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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