This Day in Labor History: July 14, 1877 : Lawyers, Guns & Money
On July 14, 1877, the Great Railroad Strike began in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
After the Civil War, industrialists engaged in an enormous rail building program. Much of this was funded through shaky and corrupt means, leading to the Panic of 1873. When the bubble burst in 1873, many railroads went bankrupt and those who survived forced workers to bear the brunt of cutbacks. Throughout the nation, rail workers became increasingly angry. Feeling like they had no power to lead dignified lives and betrayed by the new capitalist system of the age, desperation set in.
The Pennsylvania Railroad led the charge in oppressing workers. It forced workers to accept pay cut after pay cut and then doubled the length of runs with no increase in crew size. Other railroads quickly followed suit in a race to the bottom. In Martinsburg, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad forced its workers to accept their second pay cut in a year. This broke the camel’s back and workers walked out. Rail workers on big lines had a lot of potential power because if they refused to allow trains to roll on a given line, it would disrupt traffic across the country. They knew this and used this tactic.
The strike quickly spread across the nation. Within days, 100,000 workers were on strike, with many more unemployed on the picket lines in support. In Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois especially, workers halted the nation’s rail traffic, bringing the country to a screeching halt.
The strike didn’t last too long (45 days) and the workers didn’t succeed. Nonetheless, it is one of the most important events in labor history for two reasons. It was the first mass action of industrial workers in American history, which scared the hell out of the capitalists. It now seemed America was susceptible to what were considered foreign ideologies from Europe. Second, the capitalists set the tone for dealing with striking labor throughout the Gilded Age–crush it with violence.
Wrote an anonymous Baltimore merchant, sympathetic to the strike: “The strike is not a revolution of fanatics willing to fight for an idea. It is a revolt of working men against low prices of labor, which have not been accomplished with corresponding low prices of food, clothing and house rent.”