On November 12, 1892, the New Orleans General Strike ended with a major victory for workers. One of the few true general strikes in American history, it demonstrated the potential power of workers, even in the face of race-baiting and military opposition in the Gilded Age.
In early 1892, New Orleans’ streetcar drivers won a strike and received union recognition and a shorter workday. This inspired workers across New Orleans to form unions and join up their organizations with the American Federation of Labor. About 30 new unions formed. Around 20,000 workers were union members and they formed their own labor federation called the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council. Moreover, some of these unions were racially integrated. Three major unions were integrated–the Teamsters, the Packers, and the Scalesmen. These were called the Triple Alliance and they were among the most militant of the city’s unions.
On October 24, these three unions went on strike to demand the 10-hour day, overtime pay, and the closed shop. They had strong support from the WAC.
Employers were outraged. New Orleans was a major American economic center, much more than it is today. It was a huge port and the outlet for the vast agricultural products of the South and much of the Midwest. These striking workers challenged the very nature of how these merchants and railroads thought about capitalism. So the New Orleans Board of Trade organized themselves, creating a committee to handle the problem. They did the first thing employers did during this era–assume that they could call on the state to provide a public strikebreaking force. They appealed to the governor of Louisiana, the vile racist Murphy Foster, who in 1898 would lead the charge to take the vote away from black Louisiana residents. Foster initially did not send in the militia but who was on high alert, ready to do so, especially if he heard anything about black workers committing violence.
At the same time, the Board of Trade decided to racebait the strike. How dare white and black workers organize together!!!! Of the Triple Alliance unions, the Teamsters were primarily black and the Scalers and Packers mostly white. So to break the strike by race, the Board of Trade announced they would come to an agreement with the two white-dominated unions but not the Teamsters. Newspapers began running stories of black workers forming mobs and rampaging through the streets, of course threatening white women and other typical claims designed to whip up violence against African-Americans.
But it didn’t work. For once, white unions held fast against racism and refused to settle the strike if the Teamsters were not included. Moreover, disgusted, the other unions decided to up the ante and join the Triple Alliance on strike. The WAC voted to start a general strike and five leading unions–the Cotton Screwmen’s Union, the Cotton Yardmen’s Union, the Printers, the Boiler Makers, and the Car Driver’s Union–led the committee to organize it. That started on November 8, after pressure from employers, all of a sudden affected by a strike the Board of Trade started, to settle the thing, proved unsuccessful and a tentative agreement collapsed. Forty-six unions joined the strike, each with different demands. It was impressive. Almost immediately, the city shut down. Gas service stopped. So did the streetcars. The utility workers, who had recently won a contract, struck even though the governor explicitly forbade them from doing so. Even firefighters went out on strike. This was a full-fledged general strike.
The next day, the press went into racial violence overdrive, creating fables of black strikers harassing young white girls. The idea was to stir up a mob against the strike in general. But the strikers had too much support. There simply was no violence. The Board of Trade was shocked at this. How could strikers–who obviously were anti-American–not engage in violence? They tried to create their own violence, a common tactic. They called for strikebreakers from Galveston and Memphis. They tried to organize their own militia. But only 59 people showed up when the mayor called for special deputies. That was no military force to bust a strike. Foster then sent in the militia. But when there was no violence, he couldn’t justify keeping it there. It arrived on November 10, but left the next day. The day after that, the Board of Trade and the other employers caved. They agreed to binding arbitration and though they hated the thought of it, to negotiate with both white and black workers.
The unions by no means won everything. They did get the 10-hour day, so that was a huge victory. They also got the overtime pay. What they did not win was the ultimate goal–the union shop. The real hatred of employers for unions is not the money, it’s the power. And a union shop is the definition of worker power. Politicians and others who might be sympathetic to workers in some cases would almost always balk over this. So they did not win that, nor did the Board of Trade recognize the Triple Alliance unions as the legitimate bargaining agents for those workers.
But the Board of Trade still had weapons in its pocket. Furious, it sought to punish the unions. In 1890, Congress had passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. That was intended to limit monopoly capitalism. But Gilded Age courts would simply ignore that and instead use it to rule against unions for restricting trade. The Board of Trade helped pioneer this strategy. They got a federal prosecutor to file a suit against 44 of the unions and 45 union leaders were indicted for violating the Sherman Act. A federal court issued an injunction against the unions. The AFL appealed and the court lingered on for seven years before the government dropped the case. But this was not the last time this strategy would be used by employers and the state to deal with pesky unions.
AFL head Samuel Gompers himself was thrilled. He stated:
To me the movement in New Orleans was a very bright ray of hope for the future of organized labor and convinces me that the advantage which every other element fails to succeed in falls to the mission of organized labor. Never in the history of the world was such an exhibition… With one fell swoop the economic barrier of color was broken down.
Well, no. Gompers himself would be more than happy to keep up the economic barrier of color. He did co-author “Meat vs. Rice” after all, the tract arguing that white meat-eating workers couldn’t compete with rice-eating Asians and so we needed to get rid of these people. But it was still a major victory on cross-racial lines at a time when Jim Crow had not yet hardened and such things might be difficult, but were still possible. Newspapers, both local and national, tended to discount the strike, saying it didn’t matter because the workers didn’t win union recognition. But that’s not really true. Union membership did grow in New Orleans in the aftermath. Alas, the relative racial harmony of the workers would not last, as the horrifying 1900 race riot would demonstrate.
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