The Great Railroad Strike of 1877: A militant legacy of workers’ struggle

Dec 5, 2022

Great Railroad Strike, 1877. Strikers stopping the Erie Railroad train carrying the second detachment of New York State National Guardsmen, at Corning, New York, 23 July 1877. Source: Public Domain.

Introduction

In Joe Biden’s statement supporting legislation to force egregious terms on railway workers, he framed his decision as one made in the interests of the country as a whole, as if the country was not overwhelmingly composed of the very working class he was sacrificing for corporate profits. The Democrat-led attack on railway workers is egregious in that the contact it imposes denies workers even the ability to take sick days. It is clear the ruling-class parties won’t support the working class and that a militant and well-organized fight back is needed to do so. Fortunately, our class has a rich history on which to draw as we build such a movement.

Working-class history is a living testament because what happened before can happen again, under new circumstances and with lessons learned. It is not the litany of unrelated facts that so often bore students in the classroom; it is the history of the class struggle of working people. It is who we are. In this latest great betrayal, it is worth recalling one of the most heroic and historic strikes in U.S. working-class history: the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

The spontaneous refusal that led to a historic strike

How would you respond if you were told that you had to work double shifts for the same pay? If your wages were cut in half for a six-day, 12-hour weekly shift? If you had no such thing as sick days, unemployment insurance, pension, or health care? If you were sent out of town for four days and paid for only two, while you had to pay for your own room and board that, by themselves, exceeded your pay?

These were some of the working conditions for railroad workers in 1877. “During the 1870s pay cut followed pay cut in the industry, as railroad workers were forced to work longer hours in a very dangerous workplace,” Mark Kruger documents. The pay cuts were so severe that “between 1873 and 1880 wages in the industry as a whole were reduced by almost half.” While wages rapidly declined, “deaths and maiming were everyday occurrences in railroad yards and on city streets.”

In mid-July of 1877, two brakemen working for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Martinsburg, West Virginia, refused to work a double-engine load after taking a third pay cut. Their refusal transformed into a strike, as they were quickly joined by the rest of the crew. Rapidly, “the strike spread to Philadelphia and Altoona, Pennsylvania; Cleveland and Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Syracuse, New York; Terre Haute, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; and numerous other cities along the way” [2]. Strikes extended rapidly to New Jersey, Michigan, Kentucky, and Missouri. Within a week, a total of 15,000 railway workers were on strike and, eventually, over 100,000 joined in the action.

The strike was not only significant in terms of its size and breadth, as it was one of the largest strikes of workers in the U.S. up until that time. It was also an action that disseminated socialist ideas throughout the U.S. labor movement. Philip Foner wrote that the strike was, since the Civil War, the closest the country came to a social revolution.

Widespread support and worker militancy defends strike

State governments responded to the strike by calling the local militias and the National Guard, but many sympathized with the strikers: “From the beginning, the strike was remarkable in its strong popular support from other non-rail workers and city residents. Sympathy for the workers was even evident among the militia members called out to protect rail property from angry protesters. The governor of West Virginia made an early call for federal troops, for example, when it became clear his state militia would not use force against the strike supporters at Martinsburg, many of whom included local allies who blocked the tracks to prevent scabs from running trains” [4].

“Destruction of the Union Depot,” M.B. Leiser, Pittsburgh. Source: Public Domain.

Overall, however, the response of the state militias and National Guard to follow orders was mixed, and the strike quickly escalated into a heated class battle. In Chicago, “in an impressive display of cross-ethnic unity, Czech and Irish workers fought the police at the Halstead Street Viaduct” [5]. In Wheeling, the city where the strike began, a militia assembled and paraded before approaching the striking workers. Yet, as Joseph A. Dacus writes, “it was evident that it was not strong enough to effect anything, and so the citizen-soldiers allowed themselves to be quietly disarmed by the striking workingmen” [6].

In Baltimore, Maryland, the state militia had to push its way through the sympathetic population. They eventually fired on the crowds, killing 10 and wounding 25 people. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, National Guard units from Philadelphia eventually fired on the strikers, who responded by setting fire to engines, cars and buildings, including a roundhouse where the National Guard had taken refuge.

Battles like these led many to equate the strike with “those which characterized the events in the city of Paris during the reign of the Commune in 1870″ [7]. Likewise, the worker-management of the railways during the strike resembled the Paris Commune.

In Allegheny, Pennsylvania, workers from several railroads met and voted to strike. They stated that the assembled militias had no authority over them. They raided the local armory, set up patrols, and stationed armed guards in rifle pits and trenches. All freight traffic in the city was brought to a halt. The striking workers took over control of the telegraph and the railroad, beginning to manage the running of passenger trains.

Federal troops fire on workers

It was the intervention of Federal troops that turned the tide against the strike. About 100 strikers and supporters were killed and over 1,000 were arrested [8]. As many men who made up the militia were either railroad workers themselves or knew the protesters, they lacked enthusiasm for the fight. State governors, with the support of President Rutherford B Hayes, got Federal troops to move against the strikers.

Federal troops were available to repress the Railroad strike because they had been withdrawn from the South in the great betrayal of Black people in 1876, ending the post Civil War Reconstruction and giving a green light to KKK terror [9]. With the intervention of Federal troops, the momentum of the mostly spontaneous strike started to fade.

The will to struggle of the railroad workers alarmed the railroad owners and the ruling elite. It was the first time Federal troops had been used against the working class on strike. The railroads refused to accept any of the demands of the workers, with news outlets labeling strikers “vagrants,” “tramps” and “criminals” [10].

Due to the growing repression of Federal troops, the strike’s mostly spontaneous character, and the lack of a national, centralized leadership, the struggle could not be sustained. By late August, the strike was over. Its legacy, on the other hand, can’t be repressed.

Conclusion: A legacy on which to build a new workers’ movement

Reflecting the widespread sympathy with the railroad strike, the Martinsburg Statesman reprinted an article from the Washington Capital on September 4, 1877, noting:

“The late strike was not the work of a mob nor the working of a riot, but a revolution that is making itself felt throughout the land. The afterbirth indicates the serious nature of a nativity.

Capitalists may stuff cotton in their ears, the subsidized press may write with apparent indifference, as boys whistle when passing a graveyard, but those who understand the forces at work in society know already that America will never be the same again. For decades, yes centuries to come, our nation will feel the effects of the tidal wave that swept over it for two weeks in July” [11].

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was the country’s first major rail strike and the first general strike in the nation’s history. The strike briefly paralyzed the country’s commerce and led governors in 10 states to mobilize 45,000 militia members and Federal troops to reopen rail traffic. The class struggle had burst into public consciousness like never before.

The socialist movement was still too young, inexperienced, and without deep roots in the unions to become a large factor in the strike. Yet their support was significant. The socialist Workingmen’s Party, for example, led a heated struggle in St. Louis, leading a short-lived general strike, and organized to support the strikers in Chicago and other cities. Faced with the force of federal troops, however, they couldn’t reverse the onslaught [12].

But the legacy of this powerful struggle has great lessons for the class struggles to come. It led to a rebirth of militant unionism across the country. It showed the will to struggle and the combative spirit of working class people when aroused, and that widespread solidarity and support from the population was possible. It showed that the state was a clear instrument of the capitalists. The names of the strikers and their leaders are lost to history, but their contribution to the class struggle will never be forgotten.

References

[1] Mark Kruger, The St. Louis Commune of 1877 : Communism in the Heartland (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021), 160.
[2] Ibid., 8.
[3] Philip S. Foner, The Great Labor Uprising of 1877 (New York: Pathfinder, 1977).
[4] Bruce Vail, “Labor in History: Mobtown and the Stirring of America’s Unions,” In These Times, 27 June 2014. Available here.
[5] Nick Salvatore, “Railroad Workers and the Great Strike of 1877: The View from a Small Midwest City,” Labor History 21, no. 4 (1980): 522-523.
[6] Joseph A. Dacus, Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States (Chicago: L.T. Palmer & Co., 1877): 42.
[7] Ibid., 47.
[8] Zachary Rind, “10 Tragic Times the US Government Massacred Striking Workers,” Listverse, 14 September 2017. Available here.
[9] See Eugene Puryear, “Toward a Third Reconstruction: Lessons from the Past for a Socialist Future,” Liberation School, 17 March 2022. Available here.
[10] Brielle Jaekel, “Reflecting on the Deadly Rail Strike of 1877,” FreightWaves, 22 November 2022. Available here.
[11] Cited in Adam Burns, “Great Railroad Strike of 1877,” American Rails, 04 November 2022. Available here.
[12] Sean Lundergran, “This Week in Labor History, Vol. 8: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877,” The Labor Guild, 16 July 202. Available here.

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