[Audio] The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 | NYC Marxist School 2022

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Transcript

Welcome to Socialist Revolution podcast. Today’s episode explores the history and lessons of the US great railroad strike of 1877.

[Theme Music]

After a period of ebb in the class struggle, the American labor movement today is taking the initial steps to reclaim the traditions of the past. Now we see the ongoing struggle of railroad workers, who were preparing to shut down the railways before the Biden government imposed union-busting legislation to ban their right to strike. So, how can workers today fight and win? Mark Rahman answered this question at the 2022 New York Marxist School by providing an overview of the Great Railroad Strike, and drawing on the lessons of this inspiring period of US history referred to as the labor wars.

***

In the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, the struggle to establish unions and to wrest even the smallest concessions from the bosses more often took the form of war than diplomacy. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has the establishment of the labor movement been such a bitter fight. Street battles with police, the National Guard, militias, private armies of big business—those are ultimately the forges that built the American labor movement.

The trade unionists, many of them socialists, communists, and anarchists, basically began breaking the sanctified laws of the United States from the very beginning, just by daring to organize workers. And because unions were all but illegal throughout much of the country, the forerunners of the labor movement weren’t able to approach their task from the comfort of office buildings with contracts as their main fighting weapon. Ultimately, the pioneers of the labor movement were given no choice by big business in the state but to basically fight through their collective power as workers. Often they had to fight literally from trenches and resort to armed conflict in order to defend themselves against the violence of the bosses.

It’s with this in mind that Trotsky said:

Americans are enthusiasts and sportsmen before they are specialists and statesmen, and it would be contrary to the American tradition to make a major change without choosing sides and cracking heads.

Trotsky was speaking having actually seen the entire period from 1877 through the 1930s, which is referred to by many historians as “The Great Upheaval.” Others call it the Labor Wars. In a sense you could say it was a really unique period in US history. But I think there are reasons to say that was the beginning of something that was interrupted by an aberration. It’s a period that’s frankly quite alien to that which we’ve experienced throughout almost all of our lives. The last several decades have been characterized by a low ebb in the class struggle in the United States. And the fighting traditions of the past have been forgotten through generation after generation of labor leaders.

The real thing that you can see here is that leadership can play the decisive role in both a positive sense and a negative sense. Many of the labor leaders are content to preside over a retreating force. The labor movement today is only just beginning to take the baby steps to reclaim those traditions of the past, with the efforts of new layers of the class to gain union recognition and fight. Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, REI, Trader Joe’s, and more layers that were previously dismissed by many on the left because they weren’t overall-wearing factory workers and just “mere” service workers. We’ve also seen the fights of teachers and the efforts of grad students to organize—layers who in previous decades wouldn’t have even identified as workers.

We’ve also seen the return to militancy of older layers of the class. For the past few months, we see what’s going on with the railroad workers across the United States preparing for a strike against the inhuman pace of work and scheduling. So far, 30% of the railroad workers—who are organized into several different unions—they’ve turned down the tentative agreement that was put forward by the Biden administration and hashed out by the Democrats. And there’s still another 50% left to vote on it, which is an enormous chunk. So there’s going to be a lot for us to keep a close eye on, because a strike of railroad workers today would stop 40% of all freight in the country. That would have big implications for the economy.

So, the railroad workers are in an extremely favorable position to win their demands. If a strike came to pass, it would really expose who the Democrats and Republicans really represent, it would really make things very clear. In this effort of the railroad workers to prepare for a potential strike, the Railroad Workers United—which is kind of a group trying to forge them together—they put out a call for railroad employees to study the history of railroad struggles here in the United States. Of course, we couldn’t agree more with that! There’s a ton to be learned from the struggles of the railroad workers in this country—for the entire class, and especially for us as Marxists.

The 1877 strike as a turning point in US history

That historic period of class war, the great upheaval, is understood to have begun in the summer of 1877, when railroad workers went on strike in that year. It represents a significant turning point in the history of the United States. There’s a pretty clear defined before, and a clear defined after. But I would say the strike of 1877 appears almost exclusively in the books that focus on the history of the labor movement. And even there, one of the biggest weaknesses is that it’s measured alongside other strikes in the late 19th century. It’s kind of held up in the same kind of zone, like it was just another strike: there’s the Homestead Strikes, Pullman Strike, Colorado Coalfield War, and many others.

But 1877 was a strike unlike others. Beginning as a strike of railroad employees, it became a nationwide movement that seized the country’s economy and for an ever so brief period, raised the question of who rules society. The movement manifested as numerous clashes of strikers with the state in nearly every corner of the country. In places like here in New York and Chicago, Newark, Louisville and others, large demonstrations were brutally repressed by the police. In smaller railroad towns that dotted the country, the strike erupted into what the historian David O’Stowell describes as “community revolts.” Basically, it drew in the entirety of the working class and even middle-class layers, which completely shattered the police and the state militias.

In places like Baltimore and Pittsburgh, massacres carried out by state militias spurred what became disorganized riots, which I would say were on an insurrectionary scale. And in St. Louis, where the movement came to be led by the Workingmen’s Party, the strike turned into a relatively orderly general strike, which drew out nearly every single workplace into mass marches and demonstrations—essentially leaving the workers of the city as the de-facto power on the streets.

So, 1877 was essentially the announcement of the American working class to the world that it was becoming a force capable of ruling over society. It’s for this reason that there’s so much silence in the history books surrounding the strike. In the early 1900s, future bourgeois historians and future presidents, like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were more interested in telling the story of the triumphant victory of the idealized democracy—or in the case of Wilson, rehabilitating the slave aristocracy. But writers at the time who were hostile to the strikers recognized the significance. Writing in his book called The Annals of the Great Strikes, a Missouri state legislator named Joseph Dacus said:

The strikers had now become a mighty power with the purpose of revolution with organization and leadership. It was within the grasp of the railroad employees and other classes of laborers to have taken absolute possession of every commercial center in the nation. Aye, heathens who have overturned the government itself.

Another contemporary writer at the time, James McCabe, he drew connections directly to the Paris Commune, which took place six years earlier:

Almost without warning, the American people were brought face to face with the conflict, which for a while threatened their very existence as a nation. The worst elements of the old world that had been driven out of Europe suddenly appeared in our midst, and proclaiming their terrible doctrines of destruction and rapine endeavored to revive in our prosperous and peaceful land the horrors of the Paris Commune.

Of course, we know that it wasn’t merely the terrible doctrines of European immigrants that spurred 1877. But you see, the general mood and reaction to this movement was a little bit different than you would expect from the history books today. What were the things that fed into the movement?

From free labor to “wage slavery”

To put 1877 in context, it has to be understood that the year is often viewed as the decisive end of the Civil War period. While the war ended in 1865, reconstruction had lasted until 1876. There was a highly contested election in 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. This was the second election in US history in which the winner of the popular vote lost the election. It was basically resolved through backroom deals where the Republicans agreed to end the federal government’s occupation of the South, basically ending reconstruction. They agreed to provide grants for the Southern Transcontinental Railroad, and they effectively decided to hand political power back to the former slave owners throughout the Southern states. This is a huge turning point in the fate of the Southern United States. It went from the revolutionary period of reconstruction to a whole period that eventually gave way to the Jim Crow era, characterized by segregation and violent racist terrorism.

The revolutionary events of the Civil War and reconstruction obviously made an enormous impact on the thinking of all layers of society. It’s important to understand what the thinking of workers were at this time prior to the Civil War. The Republican Party rallied around the concept of free labor. It was basically a means to congeal small farmers, artisans, and workers into one political force. “Free labor” was juxtaposed to “slave labor.” In this context, I think it can best be understood more of a middle class kind of conception. Labor was understood to not be free if it involved dependence on another person. All of this really springs from the relatively unique economy of the United States at that time, which allowed a high proportion of small farmers and artisans. So given this, the early wage workers of the United States either thought of themselves as entering into a contract on an equal footing with their employer, or they really couldn’t think of themselves as being free labor.

I think this really feeds into a lot of what we saw in 1877. Those that didn’t see the dynamic in that kind of “free labor” sense, and recognized correctly the exploitative nature of wage work, they saw themselves as wage slaves, and the end game of the slave system as something that would eventually take over Northern society as well. From their vantage point, many white workers saw themselves in their brothers and sisters who were enslaved in the Southern states. This conception understandably annoyed abolitionists, given the completely out-of-proportion comparison between the brutality of chattel slavery and wage labor. But this sense of solidarity between laborers in the North and the South is undeniably part of what allowed the American labor movement to be so uniquely motivated in the fight to eradicate slavery. Marxist weren’t a small feature of this process.

The early labor Movement: a reflection of the young national economy

Given the zeal with which most advanced workers dove into the struggle to end slavery, the early workers’ organizations—all the various citywide councils, labor councils, etc.—they all disappeared once the war began, as they joined the Union Army en masse. Groups like the communist clubs here in New York and New Jersey also disappeared overnight. It wasn’t until after the war that the labor movement was really revived. It was completely disintegrated by the war itself. And it was also after the war that industrial capitalism really began an unimpeded growth across the country.

With the expansion of the railroads, the United States was finally building a national economy. The economy of small farmers, artisans, and small workshops was giving way to industrial capitalism, thrusting whole layers of society into the working class. Former small farmers and artisans found themselves to be mere appendages of machines in this new industrial society that historian Vernon Parrington painted well when he described it as “the enthronement of the machine.”

Instead of the small workshops, where one proprietor might be routinely present and have to face the laborers they exploited, now it was a situation where the corporation had proven itself to be a superior method of capitalist rule. In place of the familiar boss, now it was faceless investors and board members that called the shots.

With the growth of industrial capitalism and the national economy, came efforts of workers to organize beyond the local trades councils that characterized the pre-war labor movement. There were the 8-hour leagues, which were effectively alliances of workers organizations and middle class social reformers fighting for the 8-hour work day. This movement was referred to by Marx as “the first fruit of the American Civil War,” recognizing the potential that had been uncorked by the Second American Revolution for the working class to organize.

There was also the National Labor Union, led by William Sylvis, which is notable for being among the first to be desegregated as a matter of principle. These massive changes in the economy pushed skilled craftsmen into unskilled jobs and dispossessed small farmers of their land.

Eventually the Panic of 1873, which is arguably the first global recession, was to thrust millions into unemployment. The economic battering that the working class was receiving and the distracting role played by many of the middle-class social reformers meant that none of these efforts were able to survive the period. So the working class entered 1877 with very little to speak of in terms of organization.

The railroads

The railroads were the biggest corporations in the country at the time, with the biggest being the Pennsylvania Railroad. In little more than a decade, the railroads had become a major feature of life for nearly every individual in the country. In 1865, the United States had 35,000 miles of track. Just 8 years later that number had more than doubled to 70,000. From 1865 to 1877, the investment in the railroads had more than quadrupled. In today’s context, we can think of the rise of a corporation like Amazon with its massive distribution network that is now evident everywhere.

Railroads at the time were run directly through the industrial areas of cities right through working-class neighborhoods with absolutely no safety infrastructure. It was almost a routine for workers to be hit and killed or crushed and horribly injured by the trains as they traveled through town. The railroads also employed a large proportion of the working class throughout the country, whether it be warehouse and dock workers, brakemen, firemen, engineers, flagmen, or others.

It wasn’t uncommon for these tens of thousands of railroad workers to have missing fingers or hands as they all made their way up the ranks to progressively more skilled positions in the railroad. It’s important to note that the brakemen and firemen largely viewed their jobs as a kind of apprenticeship to eventually become engineers. Given this outlook, the unions that did exist on the railroad were divided by craft, leaving them completely divided in their dealings with management.

An important element to understand is that the railroads functioned as 100% unimpeded monopolies in the many small towns along the lines. This allowed the railroads to charge arbitrary and extremely high rates for shipping resulting in rising prices. This dynamic ate into the wages of workers who more and more depended on goods being shipped from outside of their region. It also affected many small business people who found bigger producers prioritized over them. Given this dynamic, the railroads had earned the hatred of far more than just the workers that worked for them.

All of this hatred at the bottom of society was inverted at the top. The intimate connections between the railroad bosses and politicians were out in the open. It was extremely common for state legislators or congresspeople to pass laws which favored the railroads to immediately be rewarded with high paying jobs in the many railroads after their terms ended. It was also quite common for leading politicians to go on vacations on the railroad’s dime, traveling for free and staying on the resorts and estates of the railroad bosses. The same dynamic largely plays out today but in a much more skillfully veiled way. They didn’t even try to hide it in 1877.

The 0rigins of the strike

To return to some of the economic factors that played into the strike. The Panic of 1873 lasted all the way through the rest of the decade. The situation increased the precarious situation of the working class more broadly with rising unemployment and declining wages. By the time 1877 came around, many workers in many industries had taken substantial wage cuts of 10 to 25%.

The dynamic with the railroads in particular was an unwillingness to reduce the dividends given out to their investors So, with the declining number of freight shipments, rates rose and wages fell to cover profit margins. In May of 1877 the main railroad bosses met to set freight rates in what was a widely publicized meeting. The meeting was to settle a long-running issue surrounding the chaos of the freight rates and to effectively collaborate to maximize profits.

While the “rate wars,” as they were called, were negotiated and made public, the agreement to coordinate a 10% wage cut was kept a secret. Over the preceding years, many of the railroad had already made substantial wage cuts but this was the first time that it was to be coordinated across the main railroads. The agreement was for a reduction of 10%.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was the first to implement the wage cut on June 1. Members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers naively met with the railroad’s president, Tom Scott, to try and get him to drop the cut. In the meeting, he made promises that it was merely a temporary move until the economy got better, an argument that was accepted by the engineers.

Seeing this spineless response from among their most conservative members, other workers of the Pennsylvania Railroad set about organizing what came to be called the Trainmen’s Union. This was a pioneering effort to organize railroad workers on an industrial basis, with firemen, brakemen, engineers, conductors, and all other employees into one single organization. Founded in Allegheny City, which is now part of Pittsburgh, they immediately hired a brakeman by the name of Robert Ammon as union organizer.

Over the following weeks, he traveled along all the railroads that radiated out of Pittsburgh, hastily establishing new branches with the aim of calling a strike later in the month to reverse the wage cut. There’s some evidence that one of the ways in which the workers organized this union was through telegraph lines that they had run themselves under the noses of the bosses, like a workers’ Western Union.

But this effort to organize a strike turned out to be a failure. The plans of the Trainmen’s Union were discovered by the company and the main leaders were fired. So, at this point, it seemed like there wouldn’t be a strike at all. “Strike averted,” is what the newspapers read. The coast appeared to be clear for the other railroads to go ahead with their wage cuts.

The strike begins

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, on July 12—a month and a half after the Pennsylvania Railroad’s wage cut—that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) announced its own to be effective on July 16. There were scattered walkouts throughout the line the rest of the week, but it was clearly not a coordinated effort of the workers at this stage.

However, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, members of the Trainmen’s Union took the initiative and transformed the walkout of just a few dozen railroad workers into what became a revolt of the entire town against the railroads. The workers stopped all freight traffic in that town which was a major choke point for the B&O.

And it seems that the activity of the strikers in Martinsburg gave the strikers elsewhere the confidence to escalate in their own areas. Martinsburg was the tipping point. Within hours Cumberland, MD, Newark, OH, and many of the other small railroad towns along the B&O followed suit.

By the next day, the strike had been firm throughout the Baltimore and Ohio lines, manifesting as revolts of nearly the entire populace against the railroads. The headlines spoke of these early events as the “railroad war.” What made the strike notable in these small towns was the involvement not only of railroad workers, but workers from other industries and even small business people and farmers. Efforts of members of the Trainmen’s Union to draw in as many people as possible to the cause of the railroad workers were successful.

The newspapers refer to the many, usually nameless, “ringleaders” in each one of these small towns who played the decisive role in rallying the population. Many of these “ringleaders” were undoubtedly railroad workers who had been organizing in the preceding weeks, others would have been organic leaders from among the railroad workers who seized the initiative given the success of the strike at other points on the line.

One newspaper reported on the failed attempt of the mayor of Martinsburg to get scabs to run the trains: “The strikers were reinforced by a large body of citizens, swelling the crowd until it reached the proportions of a large mob.”

This same dynamic repeated itself over the following 24 hours in one town after another through Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana. Even in areas beyond these small towns, canal workers of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal joined in the fight.

These workers in previous decades were famous mostly for fighting each other as ethnic and racial divisions among them were exploited by the bosses. Notably, in 1834, the first time the army was used in a labor dispute was when they were sent to quell a conflict between different groups of Irish canal workers. In 1877 however, these workers—Black, white, immigrant, native born—had found who their common enemy was and had already been on strike against their employer for weeks.

There were reports of canal boatmen stopping scab trains and putting the locomotives’ fire out until the militia approached where they would retreat into the woods or back across the river and harass the troops with rocks and shouts. Other reports involve miners throughout the region using their trusty dynamite to sabotage the movement of scab trains.

Many of these reports give the impression of absolute confidence among the workers who seem to have found the attempts of the militia to help the railroad bosses amusingly pathetic. But it also appears that there was a pretty strong degree of organization and discipline involved, possibly through the workers’ telegraph lines but more likely through young boys sent as messengers on passenger trains which were allowed to travel.

Divisions and limits of the state

In each of these towns, the local police force was rendered completely useless. At the time, most towns relied on a single sheriff, only in a few select areas like New York and Boston were there professional police forces. By and large, local mercenaries were relied on for “law and order,” which made them particularly unreliable when faced with the strike as they opted to sit it out.

The militias, which preceded the present day national guard, were also useless in this situation. At the time they were organized on a localized basis and largely consisted of skilled workers, many of whom were intimately connected with the strikers and in some cases were strikers themselves.

When the state militia was first sent to Martinsburg to put down the strike, they were greeted by 600 strikers on the platform armed with revolvers. The militia opted to close their blinds and remain on their train.

Seeing this situation unfolding, which was in effect no longer just a strike against a wage cut but was rapidly turning out to be a generalized revolt against the railroads, the railroad bosses called on the federal government to send the army into Martinsburg. The hope was that they could rely on the army given the lack of familiarity of the troops with the locals and that the strikers would have more respect for the federal government than the local politicians who were known to be in bed with the railroads.

Six years earlier Marx described the Paris Commune as the workers “storming heaven.” That echoes pretty loudly here with the determination of the workers to fight. To give a flavor of the attitude among the railroad employees, here is an excerpt from a proclamation that was posted in all stations along the B&O:

Bread! Strike and live—remain and perish! Be it understood that if the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company does not meet the demands of the employees, the officials will hazard their lives and endanger their property. For we shall run their trains and locomotives into the river; we shall blow up their bridges; we shall tear up their railroads; we shall consume their shops with fire, and ravage the hotels with desperation.

Our blood, they can get it. Our lives, we are willing to sacrifice them—not for them but for our families and our rights. Call out your armed hordes, if you want them to shield yourselves. If you can but remember that no force, however death-telling, can repel for a moment our determination.

They may think or call us weak, but we are not weak. Fifteen hundred noble miners are at our backs. Besides, sirs, the merchants and all communities at large along the whole line of road are on our side’ and more, the working class of every state in the union are in our favor, and we feel confident that the God of the poor and oppressed of the earth are with us. Therefore let the clashing of arms be heard; let the fiery element be poured if they think it well.

But in view of our rights and in defense of our families, WE SHALL CONQUER OR WE SHALL DIE.

The Workingmen’s Party

It’s worth pausing here to discuss another important element of the strike and that is the involvement of the Workingmen’s Party. They were a relatively small organization of only an estimated 4,000 members. It’s hard to judge how tight the organization was, but I think it’s safe to assume that it was a pretty loose formation. The party had been founded the previous year in Philadelphia and politically was a compromise between the LaSalleans and the Marxists.

The followers of LaSalle were more like a utopian socialist tendency. They tended to view everything exclusively in terms of taking power through the ballot and had a sympathetic but somewhat dismissive attitude towards organized labor. In their view, efforts to raise wages, to improve working conditions, etc. were all ultimately doomed to fail on the basis of capitalism. They didn’t recognize the way in which collective industrial struggle could imbue the class with confidence, materially improve their lives and ability to organize, and could be welded to the political fight. They also had an erroneous view of the state, as if it was something that could just be used by whoever won political power through the ballot.

The Marxists, on the other hand, seeing the consequences of the middle-class social-reformer types over recent decades, viewed it as an absolute necessity for the class to organize itself into unions to give a political force a strong working-class grounding. And as we know, the Marxists didn’t have any illusions in the fundamental role of the state in capitalist society.

But with the eruption of this strike, members of the party, LaSallean and Marxist alike, saw it as an opportunity. Everywhere, hostile commentators basically saw it as the coming of the Paris Commune to the United States, inaccurately concluding that it was something kicked into existence by the Workingmen’s Party. To quote the famous strikebreaker and spy Allan Pinkerton:

On every railroad that was held by lawless men, in every city where violence reigned, and through every excited assemblage where law had been trampled under foot, this accursed thing came to the surface. If its members did not actually inaugurate the strikes, the strikes were the direct result of the communistic spirit spread through the ranks of railroad employees by communistic leaders and their teachings.

Despite their relatively small size, in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, Louisville, and others, the Workingmen’s Party led mass rallies in support of the strikers. Among the speakers were some familiar names: Albert Parsons, the future Haymarket martyr; Peter Clark, Black abolitionist and socialist; and many others who came to prominence in the decades that followed.

In all of these cities, the demonstrators were violently attacked by the police. In Chicago and New York, the police opened fire on the demonstrators killing dozens. Notably, in Louisville, Louis Brandeis, the future Supreme Court justice, participated in a strikebreaking posse. But events in these cities were small potatoes…

Baltimore

As the strike spread throughout the B&O, it made its way to Baltimore. The city was much bigger and more industrialized than the other towns on the B&O, with a large mass of unemployed people, the strike took on a different characteristic there. The intimate personal and economic ties to the railroad employees didn’t exist for the vast majority of Baltimore society. The influence that the Trainmen’s Union was able to hold in smaller towns was useless in such a big city.

Nonetheless, the workers in Baltimore recognized that the struggle of the railroad workers was their struggle. When news spread that the militia that was stationed in Baltimore was going to be sent to Martinsburg to crush the strike, thousands of workers surrounded the armory and pelted the militiamen with stones and bricks. The militia opened fire, instantly killing about two dozen people.

This triggered a riot where railroad property was set on fire and militiamen were chased through the streets by angry workers. It was described by sympathetic newspapers as “the Second Battle of Bunker Hill,” a reference to the famous Revolutionary War battle.

This state of unrest lasted for nearly an entire week and was only quelled once Baltimore was occupied by the Army with two warships being sent to the harbor, prepared to use artillery against the working class neighborhoods.

Pittsburgh

The strike in Pittsburgh unfolded in a similar, but perhaps more dramatic, way. Even though the strike had already been spreading throughout the country, the bosses of the Pennsylvania Railroad were riding high after dodging a strike with their wage cut.

On July 19, it was announced that the railroad was to implement the double header on most of its freight trains as a matter of company policy. Basically this meant doubling the length of the trains by using two locomotives as a labor saving trick. It meant unemployment for an enormous proportion of railroad workers. Not only was this an insult to the workers who had taken it on the chin a month earlier, but it was a practice that was known to be extremely dangerous and dramatically raised the risks of derailment.

So confident was the company that this would be accepted that the day that this was supposed to go into effect, the superintendent of the company in Pittsburgh left for vacation. And as they say, when the cat’s away the mice will play: the railroad workers in Pittsburgh went on strike.

Given the strong presence of Trainmen’s Union members and the economic dynamics in the city, the strike was adhered to very quickly with freight yards filling up with thousands of railroad employees. The strikers seized control of the entire railroad industry and facilitated the movement of passenger and postal service, showing that the workers didn’t require the bosses at all. The strikers even allowed passengers to travel for free to earn as much support from the general public as possible.

The main leader, Robert Ammon, who was the organizer for the Trainmen’s Union, came to be referred to as “Boss Ammon.” The demands of this revived Trainmen’s Union was for

  • the retraction of the 10% wage cut
  • the ending of the double-header
  • a demand for a fireman to be assigned to each locomotive (a responsibility they increasingly left with the engineers)
  • and very significantly, they demanded the abandonment of the tiered wage system for engineers and conductors.

Prior to this, they were broken into four different categories. This undeniably showed the superiority of industrial unionism. So popular were the striking railroad workers that the local militias based in Pittsburgh failed to muster more than 50% of their force. And among the militiamen that did show up to the mass rallies of strikers their commanding officer openly declared to the strikers that their presence was “mere form.” There were reports that the militiamen merely “stacked their arms and retired to the shade.” It was basically a picnic.

Meanwhile, railroad bosses and the government were in a complete state of panic. There was a genuine fear among many at this point that it was to be the end of capitalist rule in the United States.

A nationwide strike

The shutting down of the railroads was essentially the shutting down of the entire country’s economy. Just a segment of the working class was able to flex its muscles and reveal who the real power in society was.

In the hopes of putting down the strike in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia militia was called on. The idea was that out-of-towners would be more willing to be used against the strikers. This turned out to be the case. After a days-long standoff between 8,000 strikers and the local sheriff and militia leaders, the Philadelphia militia opened fire and killed dozens of people, many of whom were merely spectators, including babies and children.

Reading the newspaper reports of the following events will give you goosebumps: “Crowds of excited people sprang up as if by magic from all directions expressing their determination to join with the strikers in driving the soldiers from the city.” Basically the entire working class population seems to have been actively engaged in war against the Philadelphia militia. The workers raided the local armories and gun shops, and many local militiamen took off their uniforms and joined the strikers.

Fleeing the angry crowds, the Philadelphia militia barricaded themselves in a round house of the Pennsylvania Railroad for shelter as thousands of armed workers waited outside with the open intent of killing everyone involved in the massacre. There are even reports of workers who seized artillery to use on the round house and the local police firing their guns at the Philadelphia militia. The militia was essentially besieged for hours with thousands of guns fixed on the doorways.

Eventually, it seems like the more cool-headed workers, likely members of the Trainmen’s Union allowed the militia to slip away mostly unharmed a day later. The only safe place they could find was a hilltop ten miles north of the city. Through the night, the workers looted and burned every shred of Pennsylvania Railroad property in the city, which was no small portion of property in what is today Pittsburgh’s Strip District. 3,500 freight cars, 125 locomotives, and dozens of buildings were destroyed that night.

The strikers wouldn’t allow firefighters to extinguish Pennsylvania Railroad property but assisted in preventing the fire from spreading elsewhere. And their target was more than the railroad’s property: the mansion of General Pearon, who led the militia, was burned to the ground too.

By my estimates, two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s population had been on the streets over those few days. That’s a full 100,000 people involved, to one degree or another, in what was essentially an insurrection. Steelworkers, miners, railroad workers, factory workers, the unemployed; every conceivable cross section of the working class.

But once again, this revealed the limits of what the Trainmen’s Union, as an organization, could achieve. The situation had been out of their control and they couldn’t place themselves at the head of the movement given their small size and lack of organizational roots among the broader working class. It seems that after this immense amount of destruction, the movement in Pittsburgh burned out just as quickly as it ignited.

St. Louis

Now to move on to a vastly different location for the strike, St. Louis. There is surprisingly little in the national newspapers on St. Louis. This is because it was a rather orderly affair, but undeniably the most dangerous from the point of view of the bosses.

St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country at the time and served as one of the key railroad hubs nationally. It was also home to the largest segment of the Workingmen’s Party, an estimated 1,000 members in that one city. Given the city’s large German population, the party seems to have been dominated by the Marxist wing.

When Philip Van Patten, the head of the party, issued a call for members to support the strike, he likely only meant for the party’s members to organize solidarity rallies as they did in most places. In St. Louis the Workingmen’s Party, seeing a lack of decisive leadership, wholly took the initiative.

In the early days of the strike, there were meetings of railroad workers to discuss the matter of the wage cut in East St. Louis. At one of these large meetings on July 23, it is clear that local WP members showed up. The reports basically talk about how the railroad workers were kind of unsure of how to proceed but that “rabble rousing” lawyers had “fired the hearts of the railroad men.” By the next day, the meetings of the railroad workers and WP elected an executive committee, which came to be called the executive committee.

Historian David Burbank refers to this as the first American Soviet. Keep in mind, this is 28 years before the 1905 Revolution in Russia. The executive committee passed “General Order No. 1” which declared that all railroad workers were to strike until their pre-1873 wages were reinstated. This meant not only the end of the 10% wage cuts, but all wage cuts that were implemented since 1873.

The main characteristic of the strike in St. Louis is that it was largely a series of mass demonstrations, marches, and mass meetings. And the strike was consciously spread from workplace to workplace, encompassing far more than just railroad workers, bringing other industries directly into the struggle. The executive committee sent out detachments of strikers to discuss with workers in pretty much every single workplace in the city: Miners, canners, machinists, steelworkers, coopers, you name it. Any and everyone. Some small shops even voluntarily closed and offered financial and material support to the strikers.

General Order Number 2 of the executive committee proclaimed that all strikers, now including other industries, would remain on strike until the demands of every group of workers were achieved. Some historians cite this as a failure of tactics, but this, in my view, was a strength. It forged the St. Louis working class into a solid bloc and advanced the struggle to a degree that it clearly placed the question of “who rules society” front and center. Instead of a focus on the struggle of the railroad workers, more general demands for the class emerged: the EC called for the nationalization of the railroads and the establishment of an 8-hour work day.

The strikers in St. Louis had essentially become the only power in the city. They enforced the closure of bars and taverns to prevent drunkenness They organized workers’ defense committees to prevent petty crime. They even had the support and collaboration of the mayor of East St. Louis who was himself a veteran of the 1848 Revolution.

Throughout this, mass rallies and marches were basically a constant theme. And one thing I couldn’t stop laughing about when reading the newspaper reports was that they always seemed to have drum and fife corps with them. Maybe this is a tradition we should bring back. The workers waved red flags and sang the Marseillaise and they hoisted loaves of bread on sticks and bayonets which became a symbol of the movement, a symbol of what they were fighting for.

The strike also drew in a large number of Black longshoremen which was noted by many newspapers. The presence of Black workers in these crowds scared the pants off of the rich and powerful of the city. The newspapers, horrified at the spectacle of interracial class solidarity, described the Black workers as “conquerors.” At one mass march a Black worker took to the improvised stage and gave a speech describing the horrible work conditions of the dock workers. He appealed to the crowd of strikers, asking if they would support the struggles of Black workers which was replied to with roaring shouts of “we will!”

Was the St. Louis Strike a revolution?

I would argue that what existed in St. Louis was a revolutionary situation. Farrell Dobbs, writing in Teamster Rebellion about the General Strike of 1934, said that if what happened in Minneapolis had been generalized across the country, it undoubtedly would have been a revolution.

Arguably, the strike in St. Louis was on a far grander scale than the strike of Teamsters. The old modes of thinking had completely broken down and the working class had entered into actively taking power into their own hands. An undeniable situation of dual power existed, with the workers organizations being the real power on the streets.

Even meetings of the mayor and his anti-strike “Committee of Public Safety” were taken over by strikers. Get that… Meetings of the forces of reaction were basically overwhelmed by the strikers with a member of the Workingmen’s Party being elected chair. They basically made it clear that if they wanted their “Public Safety” they would need to bend to the demands of the workers.

It’s for this reason that the strike in St. Louis is sometimes called the St. Louis Commune.

Limits of the St. Louis Commune

But despite this overwhelmingly optimistic situation, the strike had its limitations. Inherent in the way the strike had unfolded throughout the country, St. Louis had been isolated. They had begun to make political demands as the strike was cresting in that city. However, it was being crushed through the use of federal troops elsewhere.

The Workingmen’s Party recognized the potential danger that was present in the events in St. Louis degenerating into riots like in Baltimore and Pittsburgh if troops were to arrive in the city. It was clear that there was a lack of workers organizations to marshal the masses of workers. Most of the workers out on these marches were doing so in a very spontaneous manner, without any clear organization.

Given this situation, the leaders of the party lost their nerve. They likely knew that to press on would have inevitably meant a violent clash at some stage that they weren’t prepared to fight. With troops on their way from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas the Executive Committee called for an end of the mass demonstrations and marches. This ended their primary means of communicating and coordinating with the mass of strikers. All the power that was in their hands was given up at this point.

This allowed the forces of reaction to regain the upper hand. One by one, demoralized and disappointed workers returned to work as right-wing vigilantes came to police the streets. The opportunity was missed and the St. Louis Commune was over.

Throughout the country the embers of the strike continued to burn well into October. The last place being Reading, PA where the strike had combined with the struggle of the miners or Molly Maguires against Franklin Gowen and his Reading Railroad and mining companies. Here the strikers had seen the most brutal side of capitalism as they battled with the privately owned Coal and Iron Police for months.

Was 1877 a revolution?

In many ways this movement could easily have been transformed into something much bigger and much longer lasting than it ended up being. If the Workingmen’s Party had started with a clear program of taking the struggle on to its logical conclusion, they might have been able to replicate the St. Louis Commune in places like Chicago, Cincinnati, Newark, etc.

This would have elevated the struggle to a qualitatively higher level. If that had been the case, they could have pressed the political demands and we would have had something much more akin to the Paris Commune, not only challenging the local bourgeois powers, but challenging the entire United States government. But this was fundamentally a learning experience for the American working class. It highlighted the absolute necessity of organization.

The following decade saw the massive upsurge of a former secret society, the Knights of Labor who took on a broad industrial approach as they organized all layers of a given workplace into their ranks. At its height this organization had a membership of 750,000. The KOL also made giant steps towards desegregating the labor movement. They were a model whose development was unfortunately cut across by the upswing of capitalism and growth of the conservative craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor in the 1890s. The AFL reasserted a strong craft unionism and reintroduced segregation into the labor movement—both enormous steps back for an entire period. It wasn’t until the rise of the CIO in the 1930s that the American labor movement would reclaim the tradition of industrial unionism.

There were also political shockwaves from the strike. Frederick Engels wrote of the strike wave:

The labor question has been placed on the order of the day in America by the bloody strike of the main railway line employees. It is an event which will be epoch-making in American history. Thus the formation of a workersparty is advancing fast in the country and we must follow the movement in order not to be surprised by the important success it will achieve in the near future.

Sure enough, the Workingmen’s Party also saw a massive upsurge of support. Some extreme estimates say that they may have had a membership of 600,000 in the months following the strike, with whole new branches forming out of nothing. Unfortunately, the LaSallean wing was strengthened at the expense of the Marxist wing. As counterintuitive as it seems, the failure of the strike seemed to legitimize the ideas of LaSalle with regard to organized labor.

The party met again in Newark in 1878 and renamed themselves the Socialistic Labor Party. Unfortunately, in subsequent years that organization, without a firm working-class basis was overshadowed by the Greenback movement of farmers. By the time the Marxists won out, it was under the leadership of Daniel Deleon who took an ultra-left approach to the existing trade unions, insisting that the party needed to form revolutionary trade unions in opposition to the others. One mistake was used to correct the mistakes of the LaSalleans.

Politically, this period also gave rise to the Progressive Era. Alarmed by the tense class conflict, middle class reformists sought ways to put a nice face on capitalism. Alongside this, the state made necessary adjustments. In one state after another, after seeing the limitations of localized militias, the state militias were reorganized into the state-wide national guards. On the local level, cities began recruiting and building professional police forces.

At the national level, the long period of low investment in the army turned into its opposite. Not only was the US becoming an imperialist power, looking to use the army in places like Puerto Rico and Mexico, but they were also concerned about the need to put down workers’ uprisings here in the United States.

I think the most important takeaway is that 1877 galvanized the entire working class and emboldened all of the most courageous and self-sacrificing elements of the working class. The best features of the class came to the fore. And I think such a strike—a potential strike of the railroad workers today—could actually play a similar role. That’s why we need to read this history and we can see how things can change on a dime.

So the next time we’re at a paper sale, someone rolls their eyes at the idea of socialist revolution or united working-class struggle, saying: “It can’t happen here,” we can explain our perspective and we can say, “Yes, it can happen here. In fact, it did.”


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