The Workers' Uprising of 1877

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1877 Strike “The power of money has become supreme over everything. It has secured for the class who control it all the special privileges and special legislation which it needs to secure its complete and absolute domination. … This Power must be kept in check. It must be broken or it will utterly crush the people.” (The New York Sun, quoted in Philip S. Foner, The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, p. 7.) 

In 1876, as the nation prepared to celebrate a hundred years of American Independence, an economic depression (or panic, as it was then known) gripped the country. Millions had been thrown out of work. In New York one quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The already meager wages of the workers were cut. The police attacked meetings of the unemployed, mercilessly beating up men, women and children.  

This was the period of the most violent labor conflicts in the history of the United States. The first of these occurred with the Great Rail Strike of 1877, when rail workers across the nation went out on strike in response to a 10-percent pay cut. A contemporary labor paper called the Great Strike the beginning of a Second American Revolution. The Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers asked in April 1873: 

“Are not railway employees in this year of grace, 1873, enduring a tyranny compared with which British taxation in colonial days was as nothing, and of which the crack of the slave whip is only a fair type?” 

Attempts to break the strike led to a full scale working class uprising in several cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; and San Francisco, California. At several locations the military was called in to crush the uprising workers. Many workers were killed and wounded. The first victim of this repression was shot on July 17 by the militia in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and died a few days later of his wounds. But the workers were not intimidated and the strike continued to like wildfire along the main railroad lines. On July 20, a clash between strikers and militia at the Camden depot in Baltimore left eleven unarmed people dead and many more wounded. President Hayes called in three companies of regular soldiers to deal with the subsequent protests.   

In Pittsburgh the militia fraternized with the workers, obliging the authorities to call in the First Division of the National Guard from Philadelphia. These “heroes” shot into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children, killing ten people and wounding another eleven. A report in the Pittsburgh Post described the scene of carnage: “Women and children rushed frantically about, some seeking safety, others calling for friends and relatives. Strong men halted with fear, and trembling with excitement, rushed madly to and fro, tramping upon the killed and wounded as well as upon those who had dropped to mother earth to escape injury and death.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 63.) 

The workers responded by burning the property of the railroad. Everywhere there was the same insurrectionary spirit. The situation in Baltimore was so serious that the marines were called in to guard the railroad company’s buildings and equipment with artillery. Six companies of the Fourth National Guard arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania, where they shot into a crowd, killing eleven more. Everywhere the authorities responded to the strike with great brutality, beating up strikers and demonstrators. But still the strike spread.  

On July 25th there was a monster demonstration in St. Louis, including many black workers, closing down businesses and carrying out a general strike. The women of the working class played a prominent role, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their men, as the following account from the Chicago Inter-Ocean shows: 

“Women with babes in arms joined the enraged female rioters. The streets were fluttering with calico of all shades and shapes. Hundreds were bareheaded, their dishevelled locks streaming in the wind. Many were shoeless. Some were young, scarcely women in age, and not at all in appearances. Dresses were tucked up around the waist, revealing large underthings. Open busts were common as a barber’s chair. Brawny, sunburnt arms brandished clubs. Knotty hands held rocks and sticks and wooden blocks. Female yells, shrill as a curfew’s cry, filled the air. The swarthy features of the Bohemian women were more horrible to look at in that scene than their men in the Halsted Street riots. The unsexed mob of female incendiaries rushed to the fence and yards of Goss Phillips’ Manufacturing company. The consternation which this attack created extended to Twenty-second Street, at that hour very quiet. A crowd of men gathered on Fisk Street to witness this curious repetition of the scenes of the Paris commune. The fence surrounding the yard gave way, and was carried off by the petticoated plunderers in their unbridled rage. There was fear for a while that the Amazonian army would continue their depredations. Word was dispatched to the Himmon Street Station, and a force of officers under Lieutenant Vesey pushed down to the corner of the contest. The women hissed as they saw the blue coats march along. Some of the less valorous took to their heels… Others stood their ground. 

“A shower of missiles greeted the boys as they came smiling along left front into line. One woman pitched a couple of blocks at the heads of the officers, and then moved on to attend to her family duties. The men were weak in the strength and forcefulness of their language compared to these female wretches. Profanity the most foul rolled easily off their tongues with horrid glibness. Expressions were made use of that brought the blood mantling to the cheek of the worst-hardened men in the crowds of spectators. It was awful.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., pp. 154-5.) 

The police showed no sign of sex discrimination. They beat up the women with the same enthusiasm as they beat up the men.  

One significant element in this great strike that was close to an insurrection was the active participation of the Workers’ Party of the United States, an anticipation of the great Party of American Labor, which one day must emerge and lead the working class to victory. The Workers’ Party played a most active role in the strike, issuing leaflets and proclamations and providing practical guidance to the strikers. At a rally organized by the WPUS., one of the speakers, an Englishman named John E. Cope, a former member of the International Workingmen’s Association, spoke in favour of the nationalization of the railroads: 

“In his speech, Cope insisted that the workingmen were not going to destroy the railroads. Rather, the railroads were going to become national property for the benefit of the people, and the working class would not destroy its own property. If the railroad corporations starved their workers, he went on, it was as if they murdered them, and whoever murdered a man should be hung. Yet under the existing system, these ‘murderers’ were honoured: ‘A man who stole a single rail is called a thief, while he who stole a railway is a gentleman.’ Cope concluded by warning the workers to be prepared to meet the military once the authorities called them in to crush their strike.” (Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 167.) 

The strikers were accused in the press of being communists (the Paris Commune just six years earlier had terrified the ruling class of America). Someone signing himself “a red-hot striker” replied: “You challenge me to compare ‘the Communist and the Railway.’ The way to do it is, first to see what is the idea of both, what each of them demands. Now, I say, – and I challenge you, or any other fellow like you, to show I’m not right, – I say the ‘Commune’ represents the cause of the poor in this: that its object is to give every human born into this world a chance to live; live long, and die well. And I say of the ‘Railway,’ it represents the few rich who don’t want everybody to have a chance for a decent living, but intend to grind out of the rest of the world all the wealth possible for their own special benefit. I say this, and don’t fear you can show the contrary. The difference is, the one is struggling to make it possible for all the world to get on; the other is doing its damnedest to make it impossible for anybody to get on, save the few rich it represents. Let the public judge which side is most worthy, – as it will judge in good time, and don’t you forget it.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 211.) 

Marx followed the unfolding of the Great Strike with tremendous interest. Writing to his friend and comrade Frederick Engels, he called it “the first uprising against the oligarchy of capital which had developed since the Civil War.” He predicted that, although it would inevitably be suppressed, it “could very well be the point of origin for the creation of a serious workers’ party in the United States.” (Letter to Engels, July 24, 1877.) 

Marx’s prediction proved to be premature. The spectacular upswing of the productive forces in the United States was sufficient to give capitalism a new lease of life and blunt the political consciousness of the masses for far longer than Marx or anyone else could have anticipated. But the need to create a class-independent mass party of labor in the U.S.A. remains as correct and necessary today as then. Sooner or later the American working class, through the experience of struggle, will come to the same conclusion.

Originally published in the book Marxism and the USA, published by and available from Wellred.


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