“We eat our hard bread and tainted meat two days old on the sooty
cars up the road, and when we come home, find our children gnawing bones,
and our wives complaining that they cannot even buy hominy and molasses
THIS RAILROAD worker’s words give a glimpse of the conditions that prepared
the ground for the first nationwide strike in U.S.--the Great Railroad Strike
of 1877. The two-week strike spread like a wildfire, from Baltimore to Pittsburgh
to St. Louis and Chicago, and was only stamped out with utmost brutality on
the part of the federal government.
The strike took place amid an economic depression that had begun with the
panic of 1873. At least a million people were unemployed at the time, with
some estimates triple that number.
Wages for rail workers were low. In 1877, a brakeman made on average $1.75
for a 12-hour day. On top of that, few rail workers could get enough hours
to sustain a living. When they could find work, they were expected to wait
for it or travel to it, spending their meager wages for travel to the next
job and for board in a company hotel.
Working conditions were dangerous. In Massachusetts alone, 42 railroad workers
were killed in accidents in one year. The railroad companies were under no obligation
to do anything for their injured workers or for the families they left behind.
At the same time, the labor movement was on the decline, leaving workers
with little organization to fight back with. Brotherhoods representing separate
sections of rail workers--engineers, firemen, conductors--existed to aid workers
who had been injured at work, but they were a far cry from the kind of organization
needed to take on the rail bosses.
The employers’ greed and brutality knew no bounds--there was a reason
that the term applied to the rail bosses in particular was “robber barons.”
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WITH THE first modern track laid in 1830, railroads became one of the most
important parts of the U.S. economy over the next few decades, replacing rivers
and other waterways as a more efficient and profitable form of transportation.
With this new innovation, growers and manufacturers could transport their
goods anywhere there was a rail line. For that reason, every local government
vied for a rail line in their city.
State and federal governments spent millions investing in the railroads, offering
charters, loans, subsidies and even free land. By 1900, there was 200,000
miles of track crisscrossing the U.S.
Corruption and graft came with the railroads. Owners like Cornelius Vanderbilt
squeezed small businesses and farmers, while favoring wealthy companies like
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, which got an edge on their competitors.
But the rail tycoons were especially brutal toward their workforce. Knowing
they could threaten workers with being replaced by any from the vast pool
of the unemployed, the owners continued to cut living standards to the bone.
In March 1877, four major rail owners met to agree on further wage cuts and
band together against the threat of a strike.
When the Pennsylvania Railroad made a second 10 percent cut in wages, some
rail workers decided they needed to get organized and began forming the Trainmen’s
Union, which would bring together the different classifications of rail employees
into one organization. While their attempt to form a union and plan for a
general strike was aborted that month, the idea wasn’t forgotten.
As radical historian Sidney Lens wrote in The Labor Wars, “Unionists
claim that ‘no strike is ever fully lost.’ It softens employers
for the next round and prepares a cadre of union leaders who will be heard
from again.” Among the workers who sparked the beginning of the national
strike later that year were some of the workers who had hoped to form the
The great railroad strike began in Martinsburg, W. Va., on July 16, with
the demand that Baltimore & Ohio Railroad restore 10 percent in wages
that had been cut. Workers stopped the trains and uncoupled the cars. After
the company was unsuccessful in demanding that the police and mayor get the
trains going, it got the governor to call in the Berkeley Light Guard.
When a striker died after a shootout with a soldier, the Guard’s colonel
sent his men back home. “The great trouble,” reported the New
York Times, “is that the people along the line of the road are thoroughly
in sympathy with the strikers, and the military cannot be depended on to act
against them in this emergency.”
With sympathy for the rail workers (and hatred of the rail bosses) high,
the strike spread from line to line. On the Pittsburgh division of Pennsylvania
line, rail workers shut down the trains after the company announced it was
going to run “doubleheaders”--two locomotives pulling twice as
many cars, which effectively cut everyone’s wages and threw half of
the brakemen and conductors out of a job.
With the Pittsburgh militia also too sympathetic to strikers for the bosses
to trust them, Philadelphia guards were sent in. The ensuing bloodbath ignited
protest from everywhere, with strike supporters rioting and setting fire to
train cars and buildings. The newspapers invoked scenes of the Paris Commune,
which had taken place six years earlier and was still fresh in the bosses’--and
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THE CHARACTER of the strikes from city to city wasn’t the same. In
some cities, workers took part in widespread looting and destruction. In others,
there was no violence. Sadly, in some incidents in California and New York,
workers’ anger was expressed in misdirected attacks against Chinese
What carried the day in places where the strikes had the most success, however,
was a common anger at the railway bosses and a sense of the need for solidarity
In some places, like Louisville, Ky., the demands of Black workers were taken
up--especially significant since the old rail brotherhoods typically banned
Blacks, who usually had the most dangerous and lowest-paying jobs. In cities
where tensions ordinarily existed among the immigrant populations, like Chicago,
Czech workers marched alongside Irish workers.
Women played a significant role. “It is a noticeable fact,” reported
the Chicago Times, “to all who have taken more than a casual view of
the crowd of ‘strikers’ that at least one-fifth of the gathering
The Chicago Inter-Ocean, in an article headed “Women’s Warfare:
Bohemian Amazons Rival the Men in Deeds of Violence,” told how when
the men in the crowd became “demoralized,” “hundreds of
the Amazons came to replace them.”
There were a few places where labor organizations existed to take the anger
of the strike to the next step.
In Chicago, the socialist Workingmen’s Party held support meetings.
When police attacked a peaceful meeting, anger erupted, with some 10,000 strike
supporters beating back federal troops and police in the famous “Battle
of the Viaduct.” It was here in Chicago that Albert Parsons--who played
a key role in the fight for the eight-hour day--was further politicized by
the 1877 strike.
In St. Louis, where the Workingmen’s Party had about 1,000 members,
they took control of the city in a great general strike. Delegations of workers
visited all the shops and mills, calling on workers to go out on strike and
arguing that the choice was either total victory for the strike or total defeat.
Strikers marched to the levee where steamboat workers “of all colors”
forced captains to sign a promise of 50 percent higher pay. At mass meetings,
workers called for the eight-hour day.
Unfortunately, by July 27, the strike in St. Louis was isolated, since the
strikes in other cities had not developed to this point, and fell to the threat
of armed forces called out by city and state officials, and President Rutherford
By August 1, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was over, but only because
the federal and state governments had smothered it with armed force. In one
accounting, 10 states had mobilized some 60,000 soldiers with the goal of
crushing strikers. Without a greater level of organization, strikers--no matter
how angry--could not hold together.
Many workers and activists who would later help lead the movement came out
of the experiences of 1877 exhilarated by the volatility of the American working
class--and determined to complete the task of building workers’ organizations
that could meet the task of taking on the bosses and their armies.