WCH Contributor Patrick Murfin’s writing can be found regularly at the blog Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout
The Railway Strike erupted on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Amid the lingering depression set off by the Panic of 1873, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut wages for the second time in a year. Railroad workers, many loosely organized in the Knights of Labor, struck and refused to move freight at major traffic pinch-points, demanding only that the second cut be restored. The initial strike was orderly, but the governor called out the state militia, which refused to attack the strikers. Then federal troops, including mobilized militia from neighboring states, were called in. Here is another great moment in American labor history that has been stripped from our collective memories. If noted at all it rates as a footnote to the Great Railway Strike of 1877, that explosion of pent up working class wrath that rolled violently across the nation and scared the bejesus out of the massing oligarchs of a rapidly industrializing nation. But it deserves more attention. Much more.
In Baltimore mobs attacked troops headed for trains to West Virginia, setting off pitched battles in the street and the burning of rail yards and rolling stock. The strike spread like wildfire and with almost no organization first to Pennsylvania, where more battles were fought and then west across the industrialized Mid-West to the rail hub of Chicago by July 22, which was followed by days of rioting and violence.
The same day the strike reached East St. Louis, Illinois. But something quite different happened there. The St. Louis region on both sides of the Mississippi River was home to a large German immigrant population, many of them steeped in the traditions of the 1848 uprisings across Europe and in socialism. Local Knights of Labor lodges were more highly organized than in most of the country and local craft unions had a strong history. Perhaps most important was the presence of the Marxist Workingmen’s Party, about 1000 strong but with deep ties to the labor movement.
On the evening of July 22 local labor leaders and Workingmen’s Party members met to plan. They elected an executive committee that would style itself as the directorate of the St. Louis Commune and issued General Order No. 1, calling for a halt to all rail traffic until demands for wage protections, an eight hour day and an end to child labor, were met.
The following morning, on July 23 workers fanned out across East St. Louis and quickly seized the rail yards, docks, and warehouse facilities. The action was peaceful and well organized in contrast to the mob-like battles erupting the same day in Chicago. Overwhelmed, and unable to provide police power to quell the strike, the mayor instead deputized the strikers to patrol the city and keep it calm on condition that property be protected. The strikers readily agreed.
That evening members of the Party led about 500 workers across the Eads Bridge into St. Louis, Missouri which was not only a transportation hub but then the third largest manufacturing city in the country. At a mass meeting in Lucas Square they called on their fellow workers to join them. The reaction among the estimated 20,000 in attendance was near unanimous approval. Local Knights lodges and craft unions joined in the strike, spreading it to almost all industries in the city, including packing houses.
When a black worker representing the almost all black waterfront workers—loaders, warehousemen, and teamsters- addressed the crowd he asked, “Will you stand to us regardless of color?” The crowd roared its approval and support.
On July 24 parades of strikers up to 5000 strong made their way through the city peacefully calling out shop after shop. By evening the commerce of the city was shut down, workers patrolled the largely quiet streets, and what has been called the nation’s first General Strike was on.
But strike leaders were spread thin on the west side of the river and spontaneous, although small scale, violence erupted here and there, much of it on the tough River Front. An emergency meeting of the Commune directorate was called for the evening of the 25, but broke up over divisions. Black workers defended the right to use violence to complete the shutdown. When white leaders of the directorate issued what the blacks considered an insulting order to maintain discipline, the meeting broke up with the black workers and some militant white supporters storming out.
On the evening of July 26 Commune leaders refused to speak to a mass rally called by the river men.
Sensing a racial rift among the strikers, Mayor Oversoltz organized a force of 700 hastily assembled police, “special deputies” and militia that evening and raided the strike headquarters at Schuler Hall with orders to shoot to kill anyone who resisted. The Hall was sacked and most of the strike committee was arrested.
In the meantime 3000 Federal troops and militia units -drawn mostly from southern Illinois and former Confederate Missouri strongholds- who could be counted upon to be hostile to unionists, Germans, and Negros alike were mobilized along with 5000 more special deputies paid for by the railroad barons. They were loosed on the streets on the morning of July 27 and took advantage of the leadership vacuum created by smashing the commune leadership and racial divisions developing in the movement.
Fighting erupted across the city and lasted for two days. At least 18 strikers or civilian onlookers were shot and killed outright; many more died later of injuries and hundreds were maimed.
Hundreds were fired and black balled by the railroad. Workers were forced to go back to work at slashed pay. In many cases working hours were actually increased. It was a bitter defeat that set the tone for when the labor movement would begin to make a comeback a decade later. All sides recognized that it would be give no quarter class war.
Among the lingering effects of the St. Louis Strike and the wider Great Railway Strike was congressional action to build large armories in most industrial centers from which well armed troops could more quickly quell insurrections. In addition major military installations like Fort Sheridan north of Chicago repositioned troops from the Indian Wars on the frontier to be ready for the next revolution.