On July 1, 1929, New Orleans streetcar workers walked off the job, in the last of the great streetcar strikes that helped define the labor movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Transportation was long an area of labor militancy. The ability of workers to shut down the movement of people and goods in a capitalist economy had given those workers more power than most. That ability had also raised the stakes for politicians and their law enforcement lackeys. That’s why Rutherford Hayes sent in the military to destroy the Great Railroad Strike in 1877 and why Grover Cleveland had done the same to crush the Pullman Strike in 1894. It’s also why cities routinely hired notorious strikebreakers such as James Farley to bust their transit worker strikes. So long as transportation was a public good, or a privatized company that still provided the public critical goods, workers would have a tremendous amount of power.
The streetcar systems were notoriously corrupt. They were a major source of the graft that ran the political machines of the Gilded Age. There were initially competition on the routes, but the monopoly capitalism that dominated the era also happened on the streetcars and after 1901, there was only one line in New Orleans: New Orleans Public Service, Inc. The business elite of cities such as New Orleans were who financed and ran these lines. New Orleans lacked the Progressive elite who protested against the monopoly capitalism like existed in northern cities.
The working conditions on these lines were not great either, again typical of the era. New Orleans’ streetcar workers first won unions in 1902. Shutting down the cars for 15 days and using violence against strikers did not hurt the streetcar workers in the court of public opinion, which overwhelming came out in support of them. When the mayor called for 1,000 deputized police, only 26 volunteered. The overall feeling in favor of the workers was reflected nationally, as the railroad was Public Enemy #1 among the general public throughout the period, for the noise, the smoke, the indifference to human life, they way it tore through neighborhoods. During World War I, wages among streetcar workers nationally doubled. After the war, the company claimed it could only survive by slashing wages and increasing fares. The company did go into receivership between 1919 and 1922, though made no major changes to employees, though there was a strike in 1920. Some in the city pushed for the streetcars to be under municipal ownership, but with the decline of Progressivism in the anti-public good and anti-union 1920s, the impetus for municipal ownership and good relations with employees both declined.
The last of the great streetcar strikes took place in New Orleans, beginning on July 1, 1929. This was the culmination of a decade of anti-union actions by the New Orleans streetcar employer, part of one of the most anti-union industries in the country for many years. It was clear by 1927 that the company intended on destroying the union. They created an alternative organization called the Progressive Benevolent Association that served as something of a company union. The company refused to promote workers who were not PBA members. Workers were affiliated with the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees. In June 1929, the union alleged discrimination against members who not join the fake organization. But a board of arbitration rejected their claim. The grounds for a strike were set. The employer also wanted to get rid of the requirement to have two men on each streetcar, which would have decimated the union.
The company rejected all attempts at arbitration. It wanted blood. It imported 600 strikebreakers. When the mayor offered a deal to get rid of the PBA and the scabs in exchange for having full hiring and firing over the workers, which itself would have seriously damaged the union, the company refused again.
The city attempted to reopen the streetcar lines using scabs on July 4. When strikers rushed to the trains to confront them, police fired into the crowd and one striker was killed. Moreover, they brought in U.S. marshals to protect the strikebreakers, which sent the workers and their supporters through the roof. Once again, national law enforcement was to serve as the private police force of employers. The marshals also deputized the strikebreakers, who often came from northern cities, paying them much more than they would make just as drivers. Furious workers and their many sympathizers in the city responded intensely. Strikebreakers received serious harassment, with up to 50,000 coming out at one point to intimidate them from scabbing and to fight back against the employers and police who allowed them to do so. One observer noted it surpassed “the biggest swarm of Mardi Gras.” One manager’s house was dynamited. Other workers threw rocks at scabbing streetcars and at least one car was burned. The streetcars did not run.
Workers around the city expressed solidarity with the strikers, such as the image that starts this post. Meanwhile, the strike severely hurt the streetcar line. Forty million fewer streetcar rides took place in 1929 than in 1928, costing the company $2 million. Meanwhile, New Orleans elites were quite frightened of all this. The streetcars didn’t employ that many workers. But with such anger at the treatment of them building solidarity across classes and sectors of employment, New Orleans worried about a broader spirit of resistance that could also challenge racial hierarchies. That solidarity was being extended as fly-by-night jitney companies formed to get workers around so they wouldn’t have to use the streetcars. But a judge issued an injunction against them, effectively enforcing a monopoly. The writing was on the wall that the union would lose.
Worried about the image of violence that the resistance to the strikebreaking created, American Federation of Labor president William Green came to New Orleans to work out a settlement. By August 15, the workers agreed to restart service, but the strike was not fully settled until workers ratified the new contract on October 10. The power of monopolies seemed unabated.
The reason this was the last major streetcar strike had nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans but because Americans were abandoning public transportation for automobiles, a process significantly moved along by General Motors and its conspirators in the National City Lines scheme to end streetcars and replace them with buses. Bus drivers could and would strike as well, but the threat of shutting down an entire city’s transportation network was over. Of course, other forms of workers could still threaten to paralyze a nation’s transportation network, which led to Reagan firing the air traffic controllers in 1981.
I borrowed from Adam Fairclough, “The Public Utilities Industry in New Orleans: A Study in Capital, Labor, and Government, 1894-1929,” in the Winter 1981 issue of Louisiana History for some of the material in this post.
This is the 319th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.