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The Great Strike of 1877

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Jarod Roll

on 18 February 2016

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Transcript of The Great Strike of 1877

The Great Strike of 1877

HIS 318
Dr. Roll
Panic of 1873 and ensuing Depression:
--over-expansion of railroads key
--railroads cuts wages throughout the 1870s
--July 1877 cut of 10% by B & O sparks a strike in Martinsburg, WV
The 1877 cut amounted to almost 50% cut since 1873
--massive loss for some of the most skilled, revered workers in the US
--at the forefront of industrial transformation
--due to nature of railroads, not just a West Virginia affiar
--B & O the oldest railroad in the US, reached all the way to New York state, Chicago, St. Louis
As railroad company, governors of West Virginia and Maryland, and President Hayes decided how to respond, the main question was:
--should federal soldiers be used to stop the strike?
Local and state militia ineffective:
--too close to the strikers
--too sympathetic with suffering and demands of the railroad workers
Meanwhile, the strike spread along the railroad itself:
--Baltimore
--Pittsburgh
--gained sympathy from coal miners, iron workers, others
Pittsburgh a key eastern railroad hub:
--transit point for Pennsylvania coal
--center of iron and steel production
--loading point for Ohio River traffic
--railroads very unpopular
Again, local militia too sympathetic with the strikers in a state where unions had been active since the late 1820s, but most recently and strongly among coal miners (Molly Maguires)
Governor sends in a National Guard regiment from Philadelphia: these soldiers fire into crowds of strikers 6,000 strong
Battle of Pittsburgh:
--strikers respond by attacking railroad property, joined by larger groups of unemployed people
--burn the city's railroad depot, including hundreds of cars and dozens of locomotives
--over 100 people killed in the city
Strike spreads along the railroad after Pittsburgh:
--national strike that focuses outrage against railroads and industrial capitalism
--organized from local grievances, the bottom-up
--no union or political coordination
--new connections across skill lines and across lines of ethnicity (still strong divisions, though)
Business elites liken it to Paris Commune (1871), new fear of communist insurrection
--blame cast on Workingmen's Party (founded 1876)
--Louisville, KY: railroad attacked; textile workers, carpenters, mechanics all involved
--San Francisco: Irish workers, miners, port workers involved
--Kansas City
--Galveston
Workingmen's Party did give the strike direction in Chicago and St. Louis
--Chicago: key industrial center and rail juncture, perhaps the most important
--WP, led by Albert Parsons (native Texan), organized a "Grand Army of Starvation," 15,000 strong: German, Czech, French and English speakers
--attempt to turn unorganized strike into new, coherent working-class revolt against industrial capitalism
--Chicago newspapers announced, "It is Here"
"A mighty spirit is animating the hearts of the American people today. The backbone of the country, the men who till the soil, who guide the machine, who weave the fabrics and cover the backs of civilized men. We demand we be permitted to live, that we shall not be turned upon the earth as vagrants and tramps."
Violent clashes throughout the city:
--strikers fighting police, militia, Pinkertons
--Irish butcher marching with meat cleavers
--20% of strikers were women, who, one observer reported, "are a great deal worse than the men."
--all railroad lines east of the Mississippi River affected
Order imposed in Chicago by U. S. 9th Infantry, led by Phil Sheridan, who had been fighting Sioux on the Great Plains
St. Louis more peaceful to start, more effective organization by WP:
--effective general strike across the city, including East St. Louis
--clearer political demands: banking reform, public works program to provide unemployment relief, 8-hour day
--even featured cooperation between white workers and African American workers (many of whom worked on wharves and riverboats)
St. Louis General Strike put down by police, U. S. troops
--80,000 railroad workers on strike that summer
--millions of $$$ in property destroyed
--hundreds killed
--new (elite) fear of working-class revolution
--new awareness of common working-class political demands, power

Consequences:
--National Guard investment (to put down strikes)
--new armories built in major industrial cities
--strike itself a failure
--WP gained new power, however
--elect state legislators in KY, for example
--leads to Order of Caucasians in California
--Greenback-Labor Party founded in 1878: taking the demands of the St. Louis "commune" to national politics
--rejuvenated small but ambitious union with only a few thousand members: Knights of Labor
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