The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
Digital History ID 1097
The total miles of railroad track in the United States increased from just 23 in 1830 to 35,000 by the end of the Civil War to a peak of 254,000 in 1916. By the eve of World War I, railroads employed one out of every 25 American workers. The industry's growth was accompanied by bitter labor disputes. Many of the nation's most famous strikes involved the railroads. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the country's first major rail strike and witnessed the first general strikes in the nation's history. The strikes and the violence it spawned briefly paralyzed the country's commerce and led governors in ten states to mobilize 60,000 militia members to reopen rail traffic. The strike would be broken within a few weeks, but it also helped set the stage for later violence in the 1880s and 1890s, including the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886, the Homestead Steel Strike near Pittsburgh in 1892, and the Pullman Strike in 1894 usher in the world's first Labor Day parade in 1882. In 1877, northern railroads, still suffering from the financial Panic of 1873, began cutting salaries and wages, prompting strikes and labor violence with lasting consequences. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the nation's largest, cut wages by 10 percent and then, in June, by another 10 percent. Other railroads followed suit. On July 13, the Baltimore & Ohio line cut the wages of all employees making more than a dollar a day by 10 percent. It also slashed the work week to just to or two or three days. Forty disgruntled locomotive firemen walked off the job. By the end of the day, workers blockaded freight trains near Baltimore and in West Virginia, allowing only passenter traffic to get through. Also in July, the Pennsylvania Railroad announced that it would double the length of all eastbound trains from Pittsburgh with no increase in the size of their crews. Railroad employeees responded by seizing control of the railyard switches, blocking the movement of trains. Soon, violent strikes broke out in Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and San Francisco. Governors in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia called out their state militias. In Baltimore, a 20-year-old volunteer described the scene: "We met a mob, which blocked the streets, wrote Charles A. Malloy. "They came armed with stones and as soon as we came within reach they began to throw at us." Fully armed and with bayonets fixed, the militia fired, killing 10, including a newsboy and a 16-year-old student. The shootings sparked a rampage. protesters burned a switchtown, a passenger car, and sent a locomotive crashing into a siding full of freight cars. They also cut fire hoses. At the height of the melee in 14,000 rioters took to the streets. Maryland's governor telegraphed President Rutherford Hayes and asked for troops to protect Baltimore. "The strike," an anonymous Baltimore merchant wrote, "is not a revolution of fanatics willing to fight for an idea. It is a revolt of working men against low prices of labor, which have not been accomplished with corresponding low prices of food, clothing and house rent." In Pittsburgh, where the local militia sympathized with the rail workers, the governor called in National Guard troops from Philadelphia. The troops fired into a crowd, killing more than 20 civilians, including women and at least three children. A newspaper headline read:
"Shot in Cold Blood by the Roughs of Philadelphia. The Lexington of the Labor Conflict at Hand. The Slaughter of Innocents." An angry crowd forced the Philadelphia troops to retreat to a roundhouse in the railroad complex, and set engines, buildings, and equipment ablaze. Fires raced through parts of the city, destroying 39 buildings, 104 engines, 46 passenger cars, and over 1,200 freight cars. The Pennsylvania Railroad claimed losses of more than $4 million in Pittsburgh. Whe the National Guard was at last able to evacuate the roundhouse, it was harrassed by strikers and rioters. A legislative report said that the National Guard forces "were fired at from second floor windows, from the corners of the streets...they were also fired at from a police station, where eight or ten policemen were in uniform." Militia and federal troops opened the railroad in Pittsburgh and Reading, Pa. was occupied by U.S. Army troops. It appears that some 40 people were killed in the violence in Pittsburgh. Across the country more than a hundred died, including eleven in Baltimore and a dozen in Reading, Pa. By the end of July, most strike activity was over. But labor strikes in the rail yards recurred from 1884 to 1886 and from 1888 to 1889 and again in 1894. Native-born Americans tended to blame the labor violence on foreign agitators. "It was evident," said the Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States, published in 1877, "that there were agencies at work outside the workingmen's strike. The people engaged in these riots were not railroad strikers. The Internaitonalists had something to do with creating scenes of bloodshed.... The scenes...in the city of Baltimore were not unlike those which characterized the events in the city of Paris during the regin of the Commune in 1870."
IT is surprising that intelligent American citizens, as so many of the chief railroad employees are, should have yielded to the sophistry that attempted to justify the recent action of the strikers. No reasonable man will admit any essential and necessary hostility between capital and labor, and the orators and writers who insist upon it are merely preaching barbarism. Skill and talent produce more and earn more than dullness and ignorance; and to demand that idleness and stupidity shall be paid equally with intelligence and industry, is to require that common-sense shall be disregarded and civilization stop. Capital and labor are not essentially hostile, but they are mutually dependent. The problem always is, not how to subject one arbitrarily to the other, bat how to combine both fairly. They both assume the fact of property, but the strike denied it. Of course mere striking for higher wages does not deny it, but preventing others from working upon their own terms does deny it. If the intelligent railroad hand who reads this will think of it for a moment he will see this plainly. When the men on the Baltimore and Ohio road, for instance, resolved that the road should not be used for the transport of freight, they were committing highway robbery on the largest scale. They were stealing as truly as if they had taken to picking pockets and robbing banks, for they took possession of the property of the corporation and of the merchants who forwarded the freight. They declared that the property of the corporation should be managed as they (the strikers) chose, or not at all, and that the freight should not be directed by its owners, but by them. In the truest sense, their movement was an effort to steal a railroad and to confiscate the freight.
What was the plea urged by the railroad strikers for their conduct? It was that the railroad companies had wronged them by lowering wages or failing to pay arrears. But even if this were true, the owners of the freight, and all the laboring interests that depended upon its sure-and-speedy transport, had not wronged the strikers in any way whatever, and yet they were made to suffer. For this no railroad man can offer any tolerable excuse. If he can not punish the man whom he believes to have wronged him, without shooting into a crowd of innocent people, he must seek redress in some other way. But even if the strikers felt themselves wronged, do they think that civilized society can continue to exist if those who believe themselves to be injured are to retaliate as they choose? What is the difference between civilization and barbarism, between America and Central Africa, but law, and the redress of grievances not by individual force, but by prescribed legal methods? If a railroad workman may justly seize the property of the company which, in his judgment, pays him too little wages, then another man may justly steal bread from the baker whose loaves he considers too small; or to, bring it home, if a railroad engineer or fireman or freight hand may rightfully take the property of the company, which is the road and the rolling stock and the use of both, then the company may rightfully take the property of each of those employees, that is, their labor. But what is all this but anarchy, the right of the strongest, the dissolution of civilized society?
The further plea was that the companies would pay only starvation wages. Very well; nobody disputes that the men were the judges of that. They were not bound to take wages on which they could not live. But if they were rightfully the judges of that fact for themselves, what business had they to interfere with the equal right of others to judge for themselves? Other men had precisely the same right to say that the strikers should live on these wages that the strikers had to say that other men should not. When the strikers insisted that others who were willing to work should not work, they were guilty of the same greedy tyranny which they charged upon the railroad companies. If every striker, singly or together, had the right to make his own bargains, so has every other man in the country. If the strikers reply that all working-men ought to make common cause, and, if they will not, that they ought to be forced to do so, they use the argument of every despot and tyrant in the world, and make every honest and intelligent American their relentless enemy. One of the panders to the strike said that the strikers were merely striking back. Doubtless there are intelligent men among the strikers who thought that this was true. But what does it mean? Simply this, that if a farmer, when times are hard, says to his men that he can pay them only twenty-five dollars a mouth instead of thirty-five or forty, and thereupon the men refuse to work, and seize his tools and teams and prevent other on from working for him, they are merely "striking back." Pimps and panders are never friends to those whom they profess to serve, and the man who says this to the farmer's men would be the first to betray them. Some of the strikers offered to enroll themselves among the special police to keep order, and made a merit of permitting the mails to pass. But they must see that they had the same right to stop the mails that they had to stop freight, and that they are responsible for the terrible massacres and losses that followed their action. Whether the more intelligent men among them thought of it or not, they have now seen, with all the world, that when they attempt forcibly to coerce other workmen to follow them, they invoke anarchy to settle a question of wages; and while they have their senses they know that the fate of such a movement among the dominant race upon this continent is absolutely sure. The moral of these tremendous events—for they are nothing less—will not be lost upon either side. The country has learned the necessity of a thorough and efficient local armed organization. The strikers have learned the hopeless folly of struggling against the unconquerable instinct of a race. Neither we nor any reasonable journal deny that there may be wrongs that should be righted. That is a matter for investigation and not for assumption; and for the consideration of all alleged wrongs we urge the promptest, fullest, and fairest inquiry. But whatever wrongs there may be are to be remedied, and remedied only, under and not over the law, which in this country is the will of the people.
Source: "The Strikes," Harper's Weekly, August 18, 1877
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