Pages from US Labor History: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

By Josh Shelton

Many skeptics say that a socialist society could never exist in America. They say that the working class and poor, who make up 90 percent of the country, are too fragmented. They say that Americans are greedy and unwilling to join together in common struggle. The constant oppression of the working class by the capitalists has shattered many people’s hopes for solidarity - or so they would like us to think! Every working class man and woman on this planet has had enough with the constant attacks from the ruling class - all it takes is one spark to ignite the fires of revolution. Some say human nature prevents a socialist system from ever being successful, but the truth is that it’s human nature to strike back against oppression and exploitation when men and women are pushed to the brink. Our own history is rich with examples of the heroism of the working class in their struggle for a better world.

Forty years before the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the American people showed their solidarity and elan, and rose up against their capitalist masters. In September of 1873 a depression gripped the nation; layoffs, wage cuts, breadlines, and evictions increased; thousands and thousands suffered during the winter through 1874. In 1874, the unions tried to organize workers, demanding higher wages and shorter workdays but with little success. By 1877, roughly 3 million people were unemployed - an astounding 27 percent of the working population. Those who were able to keep a job worked six months a year and their wages were cut by about 45 percent, which works out to be roughly 1 dollar a day. A fixed political election plunged the country deeper into misery. Rutherford B Hayes, a Republican, was not the majority of the peoples’ choice for President, but 20 disputed electoral votes, some of which were from Florida (surprise!), brought the decision to the House of Representatives. A slick deal with Thomas Scott, of the PA railroad, gave Hayes the southern congressional votes in exchange for a bailout of failing investments in the Texas and Pacific railroads. As a special incentive, Republicans also promised to end reconstruction in the South, a smack in the face to African Americans.

The PA railroad began slashing wages, first 10 percent at the start of the year, then another 10 percent in June. They laid off workers, cut wages, and then announced they would increase their eastbound trains to Pittsburgh without hiring more crew. Furious workers took control of the switches and blocked the trains, igniting the spark. Around the same time, the Baltimore & Ohio cut wages, and reduced work weeks. On July 16, Brakemen and Fireman stopped working. The bosses attempted to hire scabs but the strikers blocked train movements in all directions. Word traveled fast through to Virginia where strikes also erupted. Trains stopped moving, and the bosses pleaded with the Governor to call in the militia. There was a battle between the strikers and the militia, but the strength and solidarity of the workers pushed back the militia, leaving the railroads to the workers, who were winning more and more support. The Governor then begged President Hayes for federal troops, which were quickly granted. The troops arrived in Martinsburg, VA heavily armed with rifles and gattling guns, and succeeded in breaking the strikes and getting the trains moving again. But this was just a small victory for the ruling class, for the strike had just begun! The strike-breakers could not extinguish the flames of revolt - when one battle was won, another popped up; they couldn’t keep up with the working classs determination.

Sympathy for the strikers grew strong all across the country, and in several cities workers protested the treatment of the strikers. The militia was constantly called in as strikebreakers; in Maryland the militia killed 10 protestors as they threw rocks and sticks. In Pittsburgh, the solidarity ran so high that the local police and militia sided with the workers. The President and the Governor were so furious they ordered Philadelphia troops sent in to try to defuse the situation. The Philadelphia Militia killed 20 men, women, and children as they arrived in Pittsburgh to put down the protests. As news spread of the carnage, miners, steelworkers, manufacturers, and mill workers rushed to the scene. They raided gun shops and seized any weapons they could find. The armed forces retreated as 20,000 angry workers poured into the city, 5,000 of them fully armed.

The crowd torched the railway station, roundhouse, company offices and several train cars, The New York World newspaper blamed "the hands of men dominated by the devilish spirit of Communism." President Hayes ordered all regiments in the state to convene in Pittsburgh to fight back any workers that would not disperse after 24 hours. In Harrisburg, the Philly militia shook hands with the strikers and surrendered their guns. They were fed and released to go home to their families. When looting began, citizens’ patrols were initiated to keep order. The strike soon spread through to Chicago. Fear gripped the country as the Chicago Times headlines read: "terrors reign, the streets of Chicago given over to howling mobs of thieves and cutthroats." This clearing shows the capitalists’ fears and outrage!

The Workingmen’s party in Chicago, which was connected to Marx’s First International, called a massive rally with six thousand people attending. They demanded the immediate nationalization of all railroads. The following day the police attacked a smaller group of teenage protestors for calling on railway, mill, and lumberyard workers to join them. Soon the US infantry, joining police and guardsmen arrived to "keep order" - meaning beatings and gunfire; 18 people were killed.

In St Louis, Missouri, the workers were exceptionally strong and united. The Workingmen’s party led the rebellion. The four organized sections, German, French, English, and Bohemian took ferries to the eastern shores of the Mississippi to meet with railroad workers. When the railroad workers declared themselves on strike they even had the support of the mayor, who had been an active revolutionary in his younger years. Mass meetings were held with thousands of attendees, calling for the nationalization of all industries within the cities. At another Workingmen’s meeting, writes Marike Van Ophem, "A black man was the voice for those who worked at the steamboats and levees." The man asked, "will you stand with us regardless of color?" The crowd replied by yelling, "We will!" St Louis’ entire industry was at a standstill, including breweries, trains, flour mills, banks, shops, etc.

The workers were trying desperately to take and hold power, and held numerous rallies and meetings. Socialist speakers told crowds: "The people are rising up in their might and declaring they will no longer submit to being oppressed by unproductive capital." St Louis was moving closer and closer towards workers’ control. The bosses in a fit of panic and rage sent in the US army and state militias. Strike leaders were jailed and the cities came under martial law. The workers were eventually "shot back to work" and the strikes slowly ended. David Burbank, writes in his book chronicling the events in St. Louis: "Only around St Louis did the original strike on the railroads expand into such a systematically organized and complete shut-down of all industry that the term general strike is fully justified. And only there did the socialists assume undisputed leadership… no American city has come so close to being ruled by a workers’ soviet, as we would call it, as St. Louis, Missouri, in the year 1877."

All in all, 100,000 workers went on strike joined by countless unemployed and homeless. Food was supplied to strikers by farmers showing the solidarity that arises every time average men and women are pushed to their limits. The strike even brought the attention of Marx and Engels who kept a close eye on the events as they unfolded. When the strike was finally crushed, over 100 people had been killed and 1,000 thrown in jail. In the end the gains were hardly even noticeable because the bosses strengthened the police presence in the workplaces and enforced an iron rule on the workers making it very difficult to organize.

As socialists, are inspired by the solidarity and show of strength of the working class. Some people may be discouraged by the defeats we have suffered throughout history in our struggle against capitalism. But even though the 1877 strikes were beaten back and workers reduced to their former lives of oppression and heartache, they all knew that struggle against the ruling class was possible. They used the experience gained in these historic strikes as building blocks for the struggles in the years to come, as we must do to prepare for the momentous events we will face in the near future. We must learn from the hard-earned experience of our class brothers and sisters throughout history and around the world in order to prepare for the overthrow of this exploitative system once and for all.

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