The Great Strike of 1877

January 21, 2011

Paul D’Amato looks at the 1877 railroad strike, which burst into the first national strike wave in the U.S. and heralded the emergence of the labor movement.

THE CIVIL War gave a massive boost to industry in the U.S. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the fantastic growth of rail transport and its supporting industries.

In 1850, barely more than 2,000 miles of track had been laid. By 1877, over 79,000 miles of track were in use, giving the U.S. by far the most extensive rail system in the world.

Heading several dozen railroad corporation stood some of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the nations. "Robber barons" such as Jay Gould, Jim Fisk and William Vanderbilt had built enormous fortunes on railroad construction and speculation. They presided over the first mass industry, controlled the destiny of thousands and wielded immense political influence.

President Rutherford B. Hayes, it was said, owed his election victory in 1876 to the intervention of Thomas A. Scott, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

If there were great fortunes being amassed, then there was a corresponding misery among those who created them. Wages and conditions were terrible throughout the economy--workers had been hit hard by the depression of the early 1870s--but nowhere were they as unbearable as on the railroads.

The burnt remains of Pennsylvania Railroad's 28th Street roundhouse in Pittsburgh
The burnt remains of Pennsylvania Railroad's 28th Street roundhouse in Pittsburgh

Since 1873, rail workers' wages had dropped by 40 to 50 percent. Increased workloads, petty tyranny, making workers pay their won train fares home, and the absence of any safety precautions embittered the railroad workers. "Many of them declare they might as well starve without work as starve and work," wrote one Baltimore newspaper referring to the workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O).

But there was very little organization to counter the attack on wages and conditions. Massive unemployment weakened the union movement. While some unions did exist, they had declined considerably, so that by 1877 only nine national unions existed with only 50,000 members.

THE EMPLOYERS were confident--on July 1, most of the rail lines announced a 10 percent reduction in wages. They fully expected that workers would accept the cut. After all, one business paper noted, "labor is under control for the first time since the war."

But for anyone taking notice, it was clear that some railroad workers were prepared to act.

The wage reduction was the last straw. After two weeks of apparent calm, the strike broke out with a suddenness that surprised everyone. It began on July 16 when B&O firemen in Camden, Md.--two miles outside Baltimore--walked away from their trains in disgust after the company announced the 10 percent pay cut.

The tone of the strike was set that day in Martinsburg, W.Va. There, workers abandoned the trains, uncoupled them, ran them into the roadhouse and set up a guard to ward off scabs.

The next morning, when a local militia (most of them railroad workers!) was sent in, one worker was shot to death while attempting to stop a scab cattle train pulling out. After the scabs abandoned the train, none could be found to run any trains out. The officer in charge, Col. Faulkner, threw up his hands and dismissed the militia.

"It is impossible for me to do anything further with my company," he wrote West Virginia Gov. Henry Mathews. "Most of them are railroad men, and they will not respond. The force is too formidable for me to cope with."

The strike spread like a brush fire along the 2,700 miles of the B&O line, then onto the Pennsylvania railroad two days later. Four days later, it ripped through the Erie, Delaware, Chicago & St. Louis, New York Central, Vandalia and the Cincinnati, Ohio, and Mississippi lines.

Everywhere, similar scenes were repeated, with thousands of workers--both railroad workers and others--uncoupling trains and refusing to allow them to be run out of the roundhouses.

Solidarity was the order of the day. In Pittsburgh, where the strike broke out on July 18, the trainmen were joined by rolling mill workers. "We're with you," cried one mill worker at a strike meeting. "We're in the same boat...I won't call the employers despots. I won't call them tyrants. But the term capitalist is sort of synonymous and it will do."

Everywhere, local militia proved ineffective and unreliable. In Philadelphia, when 250 soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Regiment marched through the city to the scene of the strike, they were literally driven off the street by a crowd of 15,000 angry workers and unemployed with stones, brickbats and pistols, at the cost of 10 dead and 20 wounded.

While the strike's impetus was the struggle over wages, in many areas, it came to be seen as a struggle of all workers against all bosses. A Pittsburgh newspaper quoted a "representative workman" who heralded the strike as "the beginning of a great civil war between capital and labor." If only all workers across the country could unite, the worker was quoted as saying, the tiny, already thinly stretched U.S. Army would be "swept away from our path like leaves in a whirlwind."

SUCH UNITY did develop--but alas only locally, and with very little central direction. Yet in places like Allegheny, N.Y., Chicago and St. Louis, the strikes became general, rallying thousands of workers from all types of occupations.

In Allegheny, the strikers took complete possession of the town, breaking into the local armory and setting up patrols. They took over the telegraph lines and proceeded to run the railroad under workers' control.

In Galveston, Texas, Black longshoremen struck and won equal pay with white workers, and then proceeded to persuade other workers, both Black and white, to strike for a minimum wage.

And in Chicago, a near-general strike affecting the entire city united workers across color and ethnic lines, demanding the eight-hour day.

In St. Louis, the strike reached its peak of potential, only to be sabotaged by the very organization that had given the strike its initial central direction.

The St. Louis chapter of the Workingman's Party organized a mass meeting on July 23, which drew thousands of workers. Leaders of the party called for a general strike and for workers to arm themselves if necessary. "If it must be by arms," one speaker cried, "let it be by arms." A Black worker took to the rostrum and, after an impressive plea for solidarity, asked the crowd, "Will you stand with us regardless of color?" to which the crowed replied approvingly.

The party headquarters became the center of the strike, and a committee was set up consisting almost entirely of Workingman's Party leaders to run the strike. On July 25, roving groups of Black and white workers went round the city shutting down almost every workplace.

But fiery rhetoric in the heat of a mass meeting was quite different from actually leading a mass strike. Barely a year in existence prior to these events, the Workingman's Party of the United States (WPUS) was hardly a revolutionary organization. In most cities, it played little or no role in the strike, preferring to call solidarity meetings at which its leaders would denounce violence on both sides, caution against strikes in general, and urge workers to seek redress at the ballot box.

On the eve of the Great Strike, the party was split between those who advocated purely electoral politics and those who advocated building trade unions. In either case, there were none in the party who stood by the prospect of armed mass strikes, let alone armed insurrections.

The day after a general strike was in full swing, the strike committee called off all mass meetings in order to prevent "violence" and proceeded to appeal to the authorities for pro-labor legislation, thus completely cutting themselves off from the rank and file and killing the very institution that had built the strike's momentum.

The prospects of mass action uniting both Black and white workers was too much for WPUS leaders to stomach. In a press interview after the strike was over, Albert Currlin, the leader of the German section of the party, spoke of his alarm over the prominent role of Blacks in the struggle.

From here on, the strike was doomed. While the committee denounced violence, local businessmen hastily organized a citizens' militia to smash the strike. Workers who showed up at strike headquarters for arms waited in vain. On July 27, a committee session in Turner's Hall, at which thousands of Black and white workers had turned up to urge the committee to act, was attacked and dispersed by several hundred police cavalry and infantry, thus ending the St. Louis general strike.

The Great Strike, which actively involved over 500,000 workers nationwide, lasted three weeks and was "put down by force," to use the words of President Hayes. Where local militia proved ineffectual, federal army unites and hastily organized citizens' armies composed mostly of wealthy citizens were mobilized to smash the movement.

For the employers, the national press and state and federal authorities, the struggle was not over simply wages but who controlled industry. And they didn't hesitate to employ every means necessary to "maintain order" on the railroad barons' terms.

The spontaneity of the strike was both its strength and its weakness. The lack of national coordination meant also that solidarity remained local, with workers of each locality slugging it out separately from the rest.

In terms of immediate gains, the strike failed. But, in the course of the struggle, workers demonstrated in embryo all the basic elements for working-class conquest of power: instinctive solidarity across racial and ethnic lines, self-organization through elected committees and the creation of armed worker-patrols to replace the authority of the state.

A Washington newspaper summarized the effect of the strike one month after it subsided:

The late strike was not the work of a mob nor the working of a riot, but a revolution that is making itself felt throughout the land...America will never be the same again.

This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker in March 1989.

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