Class conflict continued to find expression after the end of the Civil War. The year 1877 saw the nation deep in an economic crisis. That summer, in the hot cities where poor families lived in cellars and drank dirty water, children became sick in large numbers. That same year, railroad workers went on strike throughout the East, reacting against wage cuts, long working hours, profiteering by the railroad companies, and deaths and injuries resulting from the absence of safety precautions. The strike spread quickly, and violence escalated as the National Guard and then federal troops (withdrawn from the South) were brought in against the strikers. When the strikes were over, a hundred people were dead, one thousand had been jailed, and one hundred thousand workers had gone on strike. Here, St. Louis journalist J. A. Dacus describes the dynamic of the railway strike.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
And here we find the immediate, potent cause of the Great Strikes. Depression in business, but more important still, depression in transportation rates brought about by the jealousies and hostility of each other of Thomas A. Scott, John W. Garrett, and William H. Vanderbilt, rendering it necessary to reduce operating expenses in order to "make something,"—that is ten per cent on their largely increased amount of stock. The lower orders of laborers were first to feel the weight of this curtailment of income. Meanwhile the higher grades of employe[e]s were still receiving salaries not much less than were obtained ten years ago, when the whole country was enjoying unparalleled prosperity. The higher officers of companies received higher salaries in 1876 than they obtained in 1866, notwithstanding the immense change in values which had taken place.The reduction of ten per cent in the wages of laborers, which was made by a majority of the railway companies throughout the country during the first half of the year 1877, was sufficient to evoke the earnest protests of the men affected by the curtailment of their income. Had the reduction on all the roads which have cut the wages of their employe[e]s, taken effect at the same rime, it is probable that a general strike would have taken place earlier in the season. But the date of reduction was not the same on any considerable number of the roads. Petitions and remonstrances from employe[e]s of railroad companies were received by their employers, but were wholly disregarded. A feeling of discontent was engendered, while the burden of "hard times" weighed more heavily upon workingmen. The mine was already prepared, a spark only was necessary to cause an explosion. That was supplied by the action of the managers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The pressure put upon their employe[e]s elicited the spark, and the explosion followed. Commencing at Martinsburg, West Virginia, in less than three hours the strike was fully inaugurated, and had already reached Baltimore. The line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway was completely invested by the strikers in less than twenty hours. From the Baltimore and Ohio Railway the strikes extended first to the Connellsville branch, then to the Pennsylvania system, Pittsburgh and Fort Wayne, and other railways. In an incredibly short space of time, strikes had taken place in Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri. Fifteen thousand men were engaged in the strikes. The whole country was profoundly agitated. The uprising had assumed a dangerous aspect. A feeling of alarm and dread quickly succeeded the first impulsive feeling of sympathy entertained by the masses for the strikers. The vast numbers engaged in the strikes against the railroads, their apparent determination, the general belief that they were well organized and prepared, produced a dangerous effect upon the idle and vicious classes in all the large cities. Labor unions were suddenly aroused into unwonted activity, and displayed alarming vigor. "The Workingmen's Party of the United States," which is but another name for the "International Association of Workingmen," which has caused so much anxiety to the governments of Europe, came forth from its shadowy coverts, and what had been regarded as a phantom party, assumed a realistic attitude that caused a thrill of astonishment and terror to fall upon the urban populations of the country. Nothing to compare with the demonstrations of the Internationalists in all the larger cities, by day and by night, had, at any time, been witnessed in this country. In less than four days after the commencement of the strike on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, no inconsiderable portion of the territory of the United States was in the hands of the strikers; transportation was embargoed; shops closed, factories deserted, and the great marts which but a few days before had been so noisy, had become silent as "banquet halls deserted." Men remembered France, and the scenes of 1789-93, and trembled as they heard the tumult increase, and saw the mighty masses of strange, grimy men, excited by passions, dark and fearful, surging along the streets.... It was the first time in the history of the country that a labor strike had become so formidable as to require the intervention of the general Government to preserve order. It was nine o'clock at night when the armed battalion of regulars filed through the streets of Washington on the way to the station of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway to embark on the train to proceed to Martinsburg. A vast concourse of people had assembled to witness their departure. The scene was not unlike some of those which characterized the early days of the year 1861. The train moved away from the station at ten o'clock in the evening, bound for the scene of the disturbance. Meanwhile bands of strikers had taken possession of the railway stations at Cumberland, Grafton, Keyser, and other points, and refused to allow any freight trains to pass. Emissaries were dispatched from the headquarters of the strikers at Martinsburg and Wheeling, to induce the firemen and brakemen; along the Connellsville Branch, the Pennsylvania road, the Pittsburgh and Chicago, and other railroads in that section of the country to join in the strike. During the day the strikers at Wheeling made a demonstration of a rather threatening character. The single company of militia at that place paraded for action. But it was evident that it was not strong enough to effect anything, and so the citizen-soldiers allowed themselves to be quietly disarmed by the striking workingmen. The strikers at Martinsburg received the President's proclamation with indifference or positive disrespect. No attention whatever was paid to the injunction to disperse. On the contrary, with constant accessions to their numbers, they became more demonstrative and threatening in their bearing. During the day, a committee of strikers at Baltimore prepared and caused to be printed and circulated a statement of the causes which impelled them to pursue the course which they had adopted. They declared that they had submitted to three reductions of wages in three years; that they would have acquiesced in a moderate reduction; that they were frequently sent out on a trip to Martinsburg, and there detained four days at the discretion of the company, for which detention they were allowed pay for but two day's time; that they were compelled to pay their board during the time they were detained, which was more than the wages they received; that they had nothing left with which to support their families; that it was a question of bread with them; that when times were dull on the road they could not get more than fifteen day's work in a month; that many sober, steady, economical men became involved in debt last winter; that honest men had their wages attached because they could not meet their expenses; that by a rule of the company any man who had his wages attached should be discharged; that this was a tyranny to which no rational being should submit, and that it was utterly impossible for a man with a family to support himself and family at the reduced rate of wages. These statements of the striking employe[e]s were not without effect in awakening sympathy for them among the great mass of the people.... It was formally announced chat the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company would make no further efforts to run trains on their line for the time being. Thus, the efforts of a gigantic corporation, supplemented by the whole power of the Government to protect and aid it, were ineffective to raise a blockade on one of the great thoroughfares of the nation, when chat blockade was enforced only by a number of stokers and brakemen without financial credit or political patronage. Thus the movement had gone on until the National Government round itself powerless for the time being to suppress it. The strikers had now become a mighty power. With a purpose of revolution, with organization and leadership, it was within the grasp of the railroad employe[e]s and other classes of laborers to have taken absolute possession of every commercial center in the nation; aye! even to have overturned the Government itself!
Footnotes1 J. A. Dacus, Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States (1877). In J A Dacus, Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States: A Reliable History and Graphic Description of the Causes and Thrilling Events of the Labor Strikes and Riots of 1877(St Louis: Scammell and Company, 1877), pp. 21—23, 42-43, 98-99.