Monday, May 20, 2013
Twiggs: The Great Strike of 1877
The Great Strike of 1877
It was the summer of 1877, the US was amid its fourth year of a depression, and wages were being reduced by another ten percent. It started in Martinsburg, Virginia, and would spread to a number of different cities throughout the US. “It was an explosion of ‘firsts.’” The Great Strike of 1877 was the first national strike, as well as the first strike that had to be broken up by the U.S. military.1 Also known as The Great Upheaval, it was the “most violent labor-management confrontation” up until this point in American history. It was the beginning of an era of controversy between employees and employers.2
“The Great Strike was a creature of one of the periodic economic downturns that have caused misery for working people throughout U.S. history.”3 Following the Civil War, there was shift towards an industrial economy; there was a massive rise in companies and corporations. Railroad companies showed the most growth. “In 1850, barely more than 2,000 miles of track had been laid. By 1877, over 79,000 miles of track were in use, giving the U.S. by far the most extensive rail system in the world.”4 On September 18, 1873, the nation entered a state of panic, a result of financial institutions running out of means of financing due to the distribution of bad loans. The Panic of 1873 sent America into an economic depression. Out of the 364 railroads that existed at the time, 89 went out of business. Other American companies also met the same fate. By 1875, over 18,000 companies were unable to withstand the economic burden and collapsed.5 There was a tremendous number of unemployed. As unemployment and the depression continued, people were desperate for work. People, unable to feed their families, were on the verge of starvation. According to Labor’s Untold Story, written by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, “By 1877 there were as many as three million unemployed [roughly 27 percent of the working population]…And the wages of those employed had been cut by as much as 45 percent, often to little more than a dollar a day.”6
When profits reached a low point that was unacceptable to stockholders, it was the workers who had to suffer. Their wages would be cut further or they would be terminated and forced to join the unemployed.7 “It began with wage cuts on railway after railway…” and the cuts would finally reach the Martinsburg, West Virginia station.8 It was announced on July 11, 1877, by the President of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, that wages would be reduced by ten percent to those receiving more than a dollar a day, effective on July 16th. Workers were expected to accept the pay cut. “It is hoped and believed that all persons in the service will appreciate the necessity of, and concur cordially in, this action.”9 Workers would also be told that the workweek is being cut down to two or three days.10 Fewer days would cause an even further decrease in income. Employers did not fear strikes because with the large number of unemployed American’s, if a worker disliked his pay or working conditions, “…another hungry man would surely step forward to take his place.”11 Like stated, on July 16th, the wage cut took effect, it was the second wage cut in eight months.12
“At the Baltimore & Ohio station in Martinsburg, West Virginia, workers determined to fight the wage cut went on strike, uncoupled the engines, ran them into the roundhouse, and announced no more trains would leave Martinsburg until the 10% cut was cancelled.”13 Police reported to the scene and proved unsuccessful in getting the workers to move the trains. Strikebreakers were requested, which only angered strikers further. Strikers prevented strikebreakers from operating the trains.14 B&O officials then requested the help of West Virginia Governor, Henry Matthews. Matthews contacted the commander of the Berkeley Light Guard, Charles Faulkner, Jr., and requested militiamen be sent. The following day, the militiamen arrived in Martinsburg and attempted to move their train out the station but efforts were unsuccessful. “Firemen and rail workers stopped freight traffic along the entire line of the B&O; passenger and mail service went uninterrupted.”15 Since passengers were able to travel, the strike had no affect on them directly. Strikers gain support and sympathy from the people. “Workers suspected that the railroads were coordinating their actions, blunting the effectiveness of the potential strike against one road by agreeing to take up its lost traffic until the strike ended.”16
July 17, 1877, an article, “Serious Strike” appeared in The Albany Argus contains this excerpt:
“…The strikers have done no damage to property, and passenger trains are expected to pass uninterrupted.”17
America had no idea how powerful and destructive this strike was about to become.
Workers were uspet all over. “As fast as the strike was broken in one place it appeared in another.”18 The strike showed up in cities throughout Pennsylvaina, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and others. Maryland’s governor put out a call for the state militia. “Within an half hour of the call, ‘a crowd numbering at least 2,000 men, woman, and children surrounded the [Maryland Sixth Regiment] armory and loudly expressed their feelings against the military and in favor of the strikes.’” 10 people were killed.19 In Pittsburgh, striker sympathy was the strongest. “Railroad cars were set afire, buildings began to burn, and finally the roundhouse itself…There was more gunfire, the Union Depot was set afire, thousands looted the freight cars. A huge grain elevator and a small section of the city went up in flames. In a few days, twenty-four people had been killed (including four soldiers). Seventy-nine buildings had been burned to the ground. Something like a general strike was developing in Pittsburgh…”20
11 days after The Albany Argus announced that no property damage had been made, an article in the American Railroad Journal included:
“The damage to railroad property has been very extensive …‘Wherever any buildings or other real personal property shall be destroyed or injured in consequence of any mob or riot, the city in which the same shall occur, or if not in a city, then the county in which such property was situated shall be liable to any action by or in behalf of the party whose property was thus destroyed or injured for the damages sustained by reason therefore.”21
On August 1, 1887, the strike was over. After all was said and done, over 100,000 people in fourteen states had been involved, thousands of people had gone to jail, over 100 people were dead, and there was 5 million dollars worth of property damage. “Its dramatic display of cooperative power virtually ceased the movements of society and commerce.”22 “More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track stopped moving.”23 The results of the strike are mixed. “The spontaneity of the strike was both its strength and its weakness. The lack of national coordination meant also that solidarity remained local, with workers of each locality slugging it out separately from the rest. In terms of immediate gains, the strike failed. But, in the course of the struggle, workers demonstrated in embryo all the basic elements for working-class conquest of power: instinctive solidarity across racial and ethnic lines, self-organization through elected committees and the creation of armed worker-patrols to replace the authority of the state.”24 In the 1880s, some companies began providing employees with some medical benefits and pension plans.25
Days after the strike ended, on August 4th, an article appeared in the American Railroad Journal including this excerpt:
“…further, let skill and fithful services be recognized and rewarded by just compensation….We consider it as obligatory on the part of the employers to compensate and encourage their workmen, as it is for workmen to strive after excellence and to be faithful in the persormance of their duty.”26
The working mans work should never again go unappreciated.
4 Paul D’Amato, “The Great Strike of 1877,” Socialist Worker, January 21, 2011, http://socialistworker.org/2011/01/21/great-strike-of-1877.
5 Maryanne Malecki, “Historical Background of the Great Strike of 1877,” New York State Library, last updated January 11, 2012, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/background.htm.
7 Maryanne Malecki, “Historical Background of the Great Strike of 1877,” New York State Library, last updated January 11, 2012, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/background.htm.
8 Howard Zinn, “1877: The great railroad strike,” http://libcom.org/history/articles/us-rail-strikes-1877.
9 B&O Railroad Minute Book, “Announcement of Wage Cuts on the B&O Railroad,” July 11, 1877, http://teachingamericanhistorymd.net/000001/000000/000070/images/notice-copyright.jpg.
12 Maryanne Malecki, “Historical Background of the Great Strike of 1877,” New York State Library, last updated January 11, 2012, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/background.htm.
13 Howard Zinn, “1877: The great railroad strike,” http://libcom.org/history/articles/us-rail-strikes-1877.
15 Maryanne Malecki, “Historical Background of the Great Strike of 1877,” New York State Library, last updated January 11, 2012, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/background.htm.
17 “Serious Strike,” Albany Argus (Martinsburg, W. VA.), July 17, 1877, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/docs/1serious.htm.
21 “The Recent Railroad Damages,” American Railroad Journal, July 28, 1877, http://teachingamericanhistorymd.net/000001/000000/000070/html/t70.html.
22 Maryanne Malecki, “Historical Background of the Great Strike of 1877,” New York State Library, last updated January 11, 2012, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/background.htm.
24 Paul D’Amato, “The Great Strike of 1877,” Socialist Worker, January 21, 2011, http://socialistworker.org/2011/01/21/great-strike-of-1877.
25 Maryanne Malecki, “Historical Background of the Great Strike of 1877,” New York State Library, last updated January 11, 2012, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/teacherguides/strike/background.htm.
26 “A Strike at Strikes,” American Railroad Journal, August 4, 1877, http://teachingamericanhistorymd.net/000001/000000/000070/html/t70.html.