The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
The Great Railroad Strike of 1877
- Matthew StanleyMatthew StanleyDepartment of Social Sciences, Albany State University
The “Great Railroad Strike,” the first and largest nationwide series of labor uprisings in the United States’ history, occurred in July and August 1877. Backdropped by the Long Depression emanating from the Panic of 1873, the collapse of federal Reconstruction in the South, and the cooperation and consolidation among owners of major industries, what became known as the “Great Strike” or the “Great Upheaval” was in fact a sequence of dozens of simultaneous and overlapping strike actions in which some 500,000 workers across various industries walked off their jobs. Many couched their struggle in a language of freedom centered on economic independence, appealing to other workers and the public through the ideology of labor republicanism. In addition to general strikes in some cities, labor actions shut down the nation’s most valuable and important industry, the railroads. At the same time, cross-class urban crowds protested urban and industrial conditions, skirmished with soldiers, and destroyed corporate property. Strike conduct was specific to trunk line and locale. Local political, ethnic, cultural, and kinship networks impacted worker action, as did the newspaper media. Likewise, civic responses to the strikes varied widely and were both shaped by, and helped shape, municipal and regional politics. Community, cross-trade, and cross-class support proved critical in places where the strikes were most far-reaching.
The roots of the 1877 strikes lay in cumulative antagonism between railroad workers and owners. In an era when workplace accidents killed tens of thousands of workers and maimed hundreds of thousands more every year, railroad companies refused to equip workplaces with readily available safety devices. Employee grievances also included long and irregular working hours, low pay, and the absence of collective bargaining rights. However, the strikes themselves and the accompanying crowd actions that began on July 16 were instigated by workers on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in response to a series of wage reductions. A wave of stoppages and protests quickly spread outward along the rail lines to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Kansas City, and San Francisco, transforming from a railway strike to a more general labor and urban uprising. The episode reached its most radical zenith in St. Louis, where the shutdown of nearly all of the city’s industry, largely coordinated by the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, made it the first truly general strike in U.S. history. Workers outside the railyards and non-wage workers also participated in urban uprisings and the destruction of railroad property. Cities saw violent clashes between crowds and private police forces and militias, National Guard units, and federal soldiers. In all, over one hundred men, women, and children were killed in the violence.
The strikes had profound implications in the areas of labor management, civil–military relations, and popular attitudes regarding capitalism, socialism, and labor organization. The quelling of the strikes led to new approaches in how city and state governments handled civil unrest. In particular, the strikes expanded ownership’s labor management instruments and practices, as governments proved willing to deploy the military against workers during labor disputes on a major scale, expediting the rise of the “robber baron.” These repressive measures were augmented by popular anticommunist hysteria—the first of several major “red scares” throughout U.S. history. Whereas many workers viewed the walkouts as prefiguring a “second American Revolution” or a culminating “emancipation of labor,” building on the implicit promises of the Civil War, business elites and political authorities were frightened as perhaps no time in U.S. history. Economic crisis and scarcity fears enabled politicians and sensationalist newspapermen to create and exploit popular fears of foreign-born radicalism. Apprehensions concerning labor organization, tinged with xenophobia, permeated the upper and middle classes, furthering a sea change in national political priorities. Meanwhile, although organized labor, limited to “skilled” rail workers, had been in decline throughout the 1870s, the Great Strike’s lack of coordination alerted many workers to the need for expanded cooperation in the form of unionization.
Occurring at the tail end of Reconstruction, the Great Railroad Strike helped shift the center of political gravity in the nation from questions of political rights in the post-emancipation South to those of capital and labor in the industrial North. Most historians view the Great Strike as a watershed event. As a cultural transit from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age, 1877 forced the “labor question” into the nation’s popular consciousness.
- Civil War and Reconstruction
- Late 19th-Century History
- Labor and Working Class History