Home / General / This Day in Labor History: July 1, 1922

This Day in Labor History: July 1, 1922

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On July 1, 1922, the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 begins. Also known as the Railway Shopmen’s Strike, this action was the largest railway strike in the United States since the Pullman Strike in 1894. It led to at least ten dead and was the rare challenge to American employers in the harshly anti-union 1920s. However, it collapsed in August with the workers losing, all too typical of that decade.

With the railroads long a point of labor struggle, the Wilson administration wanted to ensure that the trains ran with labor peace during World War I. So it briefly nationalized them, which the companies were not exactly thrilled with. The United States Railroad Administration got to administer them. One of the things the Wilson administration did when it did this sort of thing, as happened in the timber industry, was the establishment of the eight-hour day.

The Transportation Act of 1920 ended the nationalization of the railroads. Almost immediately, the era of labor peace also ended. The Railway Labor Board was created to arbitrate between workers and companies and try to keep the peace but it had no real power in a nation that was highly uncomfortable with the centralizing nature of the Wilson administration and seeking a return to Gilded Age principles of employer power. Meanwhile, workers struggled with inflation and wanted raises to keep up with the cost of living. Employers, to say the least, thought differently.

One of the thing that World War I did was provide clear paths to unionization for a lot of railroad workers who were not part of the old brotherhoods. I’ve stated this before, but even if you consider Wilson’s Red Scare, he’s still the most pro-union president in American history before FDR, so long as you weren’t an anarchist or commie or IWW. If you were properly conservative, Wilson was happy to see you unionize. Samuel Gompers had his best years during World War I and was thrilled with the new attitude of the federal government, which he hoped would last. Alas, it did not.

It was the goal of employers around the nation to repeal what they had lost in World War I, as limited as those losses were. The open-shop movement was a big thing for employers, seeking to ensure they would never have to accept union members, including engaged in yellow-dog contracts, making not being a member of a union a condition of employment. Railway companies were trying to undermine their relatively unionized industry by outsourcing a lot of work to subcontractors. This infuriated the workers. Tension rose and by late 1921, the nation was slowly moving toward a major railroad strike. Those who believed in moderation tried to arbitrate, such as the National Civic Federation, but this failed in the face of employer unwillingness to compromise.

To make it worse, the Railway Labor Board was increasingly in the hands of employers and the RLB kept approving wage cuts to take back what workers had gained in the war. Now, the way the railroads hoped to split workers was to enact these cuts to the general workers on the railroad and keep the four skilled railroad brotherhoods out of it. The railroad brotherhoods were long politically conservative and not exactly inclined toward solidarity with anyone, even each other. The reason Eugene Debs had created the American Railway Union all the way back in 1894 was because the brotherhoods, where he once worked, simply refused to recognize the need to organize the entire rail industry if workers were to win the ultimate battle to control their own labor. Things hadn’t improved all that much in the subsequent three decades.

So typically, the brotherhoods did nothing here. When 400,000 maintenance workers finally went on strike on July 1, 1922, they just ran the trains. This opened the door to the massive replacement of workers by strikebreakers. The supposedly neutral Railway Labor Board encouraged this and said that those new workers would be recognized as permanent by the board. Moreover, the railroad unions were segregated so what possible reason did Black workers have for not crossing the picket lines. Yeah, they might be scabs but this was entirely the fault of the white workers themselves. So the railroads advertised extensively in the South for strikebreakers. Given that this was the period of the Great Migration, it was not hard to convince Black workers to move north and take a good job that some cracker didn’t want them to have and would never let them have otherwise. There were times when Black workers did support the strike, such as in El Paso and in North Carolina, but it wasn’t much. And I have trouble blaming them given their reality of the day.

This was the 1920s and the entire apparatus of government was against the workers, however justified there very real complaints were. President Harding publicly denounced the strike. With the 1919 strike wave and the Red Scare a fresh memory there just wasn’t any political support for a rail strike. Railroads responded by seeking to strip rail workers of seniority rights, the single most important thing in that work culture. It was pretty bad.

The workers hardly rolled over and gave up. They had lots of local support and there was significant extension of credit to them locally, while many grocers refused to sell to scabs at all. The cops and other military forces were absolute bullies and tyrants, pushing the workers around, often quite physically. They were the ones to ensure this would be a violent strike. They often fired on workers as well. In one case, a train engineer, not allowed to strike by his brotherhood so he was actually on the train, called a company guard a scab and the scab turned around and shot him dead. In Buffalo, railroad thugs killed two kids, the sons of a worker and shot his wife too, though she survived. Workers did take one back, killing a railroad guard in Superior, Wisconsin. Sometimes, strikers would sabotage cars too by messing with the tracks. Many scabs in the southwest were kidnapped, beaten, and whipped, though not killed.

On July 11, Harding tried to mediate a settlement on pretty dubious grounds, allowing that the unions had a point but also allowing that strikebreakers could and would now take their jobs. Shocking that the workers didn’t bite that apple….Three days later, the RLB attempted a similar thing, where the railroad companies now said they would stop outsourcing work to nonunion shops in exchange for giving up the seniority principle. Again, there was no way the workers were going to accept this.

All of this brought serious infighting in the Harding administration, which was a corrupt bunch of hacks plus Herbert Hoover trying to control this mess from within but without real power. People forget that Hoover’s pre-presidential record was pretty good for a rich Republican engineer. He was basically a Progressive. So he thought the workers had some fair points here. On the other hand, Harding’s attorney general, the unbelievably corrupt and unqualified Harry Daugherty brought the small town mentality toward labor unions with him. He hated them and wanted them all destroyed. Finally, Harding came around to Hoover’s position more or less. Even he was smart enough to realize that using the government as a sheer strikebreaking force might have some bad consequences.

But the government’s hesitation to help the workers put all the power in the hands of the companies as time went on. Harding pushed for a new settlement in late July that basically gave the companies most of what they wanted, but the companies themselves rejected it, now sniffing total victory. Daugherty then got a federal judge to issue a sweeping injunction against the strike, basically making anything the union did illegal. In fact, Daugherty was so connected with it that it became publicly known as the Daugherty Injunction. It effectively said workers had no free speech. This is how Daugherty liked it.

This pretty much ended the strike. Some of the workers tried to keep it on, but most just made whatever deal they could to hopefully get their job back. This became another example of how hostile the federal government was to organized labor and created momentum for the workers movement of the 1930s to elect politicians that were pro-labor and take back some of the power they had lost.

All through this, the trains continued to run without proper maintenance. One railroad had its trains fail 71 percent of safety inspections during the strike. It ran the trains anyway. Whether anyone died because of unsafe trains during the strike, I don’t know.

This is the 446th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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