On January 14, 1895, trolley workers in Brooklyn walk off the job. The largest and most violent strike in Brooklyn’s history to that point, it was in many ways a typical story of the Gilded Age where employers and the state combined to crush the reasonable demands of oppressed workers, often over public sympathy to the workers.
Brooklyn was a rapidly growing city in the late 19th century. While it was very much the nation’s first suburb, it also was the nation’s fourth largest city in its own right. It doubled in population between 1880 and 1900 and had almost 980,000 residents in 1895. Not surprisingly then, it really needed an expanded transportation system. A huge increase in the city’s trolley system resulted. But the workers were treated horribly. A common day was a mere 17 hours long, all for less than a dollar. In 1886, the New York Commissioner of Labor wrote, “in no other trade or occupation do I believe there exist grievances approximating in the slightest degree, in number and gravity, to those resulting from general management of the street roads in this state. In many instances these grievances are more than ordinary abuses…they amount to outright outrages.” We don’t usually think of streetcar workers at the forefront of oppressed labor in the Gilded Age, but indeed they were.
The streetcar workers started organizing within the Knights of Labor in 1883 and by 1886 they had won a union contract that included a 12-hour day, a $2 minimum wage, and the principle of seniority. The contract also set up how the companies would use extra cars needed for peak times, with the Knights wanting fewer temporary employees and the companies more of them. Over time, the companies began winning that battle. Moreover, with the state of New York passing an 1887 law limiting the work on railway lines to 10 hours of active work over a 12 hour day, the employees and employers fought over how to count that. The workers wanted 10 hours total, the employers did not want to count anything but actual driving the cars.
The Knights local did well up to 1895, even as that union was declining nationwide. By that year, it had about 4,000 members in at least 20 different assemblies. It was one of Brooklyn’s largest unions and the only streetcar union in New York. As it was a Knights organization, it did not like to strike, with approval from the larger organization needed before any such action took place. But two things happened in 1893 to change the conditions of work. One was the Panic of 1893, which didn’t affect the companies directly but did reduce revenues. Second was the replacement of horse-drawn cars with electric cars, which had the strong potential of reducing employment as they could hold twice as many riders. The work got harder, not easier, with electricity and the workers felt they could not finish the job, stay on time, and stick to the 10 mph speed limit. They wanted concessions on this. There were several different companies in Brooklyn and each had a different contract. When the contracts neared their end in 1894, the Knights had three major demands: a 25 cent raise for employees, including the part-time guys, a reduction of trips each day so that they could actually do their work in 10 hours, and finally that more of the workers be full-time.
Daniel Lewis was president of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad Company. And he had no intent of granting the Knights any of this. He was one of the most important of the streetcar operators and it didn’t take much to get the others to follow him in an attempt to bust the union. The Knights saw the writing on the wall and backed down on the bigger demands, but it was unionbusting time. A few of the smaller companies did acquiesce, but that’s it. On January 11, the union voted to go on strike by a 3997-133 vote. On January 14, they did.
The companies advertised nationally for scabs. A tiny number of cars ran on January 17 and slowly a few more did as well, as desperate workers sought any job they could get and there were plenty of unemployed trolley drivers across the nation. Moreover, this was not a profession with a strong union culture generally so unlike the railroad brotherhoods, scabbing was a real possibility. This strike did not cover the elevated rail lines so there was some transportation in Brooklyn, but it was a real hardship for many people. But in general, the community was in support of the workers and there were many large demonstrations denouncing the companies and the scabs. Moreover, the electric wires of the new cars were incredibly easy to cut and thus it was really easy for strikers to shut down the lines over and over again. While it is difficult to really know what was going on in the community, and newspapers are really not reliable on this given their propensity to create stories that were anti-worker, it is clear that as the days passed, the pro-union crowds grew to be 5-6,000. There were big benefits to raise funds too. That the streetcars were forced to go as fast as 30 mph, often killing citizens of Brooklyn, certainly did not lead the people of the city to favor the companies.
But the city government was on the side of the employers. Brooklyn’s mayor, Charles Schieren, said he sympathized with the workers, but provided police protection for the streetcar lines and when the City Council, which was in fact in favor of the workers, passed bills to revoke the charters of the recalcitrant streetcar companies, he vetoed it. The police wasn’t completely solid on crushing the workers, but discipline held more or less. There were also not enough policemen to guard the lines effectively, especially in the face of large protests. The National Guard of New York State was called up. These less well-trained units caused the two deaths in the strike, one when a militiaman fired a warning shot and it accidentally hit a guy doing roofing work and a second when a man refused to halt.
Given that the Knights struggled to act like a union operating in conditions of unremitting hostility, it didn’t know how to respond to the militiaman and sometimes even embraced it, helping feed them for instance. This served their interests in being seen as peaceful law-abiding citizens, but also did not help their cause. In the end, the militia simply wore the workers down, as so often happens in strikes. The militia remained on duty until February 1 and while the strike was officially on for another two weeks and some arrests took place throughout February, the workers had lost. Few of the workers were rehired. It was another defeat for workers in the Gilded Age, though the Knights did remain around in a less robust capacity for another decade, when the AFL replaced it.
I borrowed from Sarah M. Henry’s “The Strikers and Their Sympathizers: Brooklyn in the Trolley Strike of 1895,” published in Labor History in 1991, to write this post.
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