“There had been strikes in the United States before 1877, but they were mostly local and on a much smaller scale. This is the first nationwide strike in US history,” Lloyd said. Also striking railroad workers joined people in other industries who have quit the job in solidarity. Many of them were frustrated with their own working conditions or resentful of other railway companies. Whatever the reasons, rail service in the affected cities virtually ground to a halt almost immediately, costing railroad companies and costs Save millions of dollars in one fell swoop.
There were also deeper fears at play, particularly among business people and politicians. A few years earlier in 1871workers and socialists in Paris had temporarily taken control of the city to prevent a feared reinstatement of the monarchy. Many participants had hoped that the so-called Paris Commune would mark the beginning of socialism in France. Ultimately, the uprising was crushed by French troops, but one occurred in the United States great fear that similar protests in the US could be the prelude to a socialist revolution.
Workers displayed an unprecedented level of militancy, particularly in certain cities, like Ed Simon details in An alternate history of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh strikers ended up fighting with federal troops and burning down buildings when attempts were made to violently oppose them scatter her and dozens of people were killed. In St. Louis, members of the Marxist Workers’ Party went so far as to run the passenger rails themselves and they kept the fares. Break up the strikes with the police or even the local militia proved challenging in certain cities because too many officers sympathized with the strikers. politicians often had to bring militia from elsewhere or federal troops to break up the strikes. “It’s really this escalation in the use of force that sets 1877 apart in many ways,” said Shannon Smith, Ph.D., and professor of history at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University Teen Vogue.
Eventually the strike of 1877 ran out of steam. All strikes ended within 45 days. As a spontaneous uprising, there was no national coordination and the strikes were resolved either peacefully or violently in individual cities. “Capital” – that is, business interests – “has learned the lesson that they can ask government for support and that it’s in government’s best interest to keep the industrialists happy because they wield so much power,” Smith explained. “Pretty soon workers or union leaders are saying, ‘You can’t unionize and join the militia because the militia is the tool of government.'” This, in turn, set the stage for ongoing distrust and conflict between these groups, Smith said they undermine workers’ confidence that the government would intervene on their behalf.
For workers, the lesson learned from the 1877 strike was the need for national leadership and more organization. “Railroad workers nationwide were getting very little,” Smith explained. Even in Places like Cleveland, where the strikes were peaceful and some of the strikers’ demands were recognized, they were eventually rejected because the railroad managers simply refused to honor the agreement. Attention has turned to a relatively new national union, the Knight of Labor. It too only survived a few years before declining in the 1880s, but it was quickly superseded by the American Federation of Labor, which still exist today. According to Lloyd, Eugene Debs, a charter member of the Socialist Party of America and the International Workers of the World, heeded a similar lesson: “Eugene Debs was a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, during the 1877 strike… Terre Haute was spared much of the violence of the strike, but he was aware of it and it is affecting his efforts to form a national rail union.” Debs focused on creating a national railway union in the 1890s, but his long-term interest was in socialism.
The battles fought in 1877 are still fought today. The seemingly sudden surge in worker militancy in the wake of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may sound familiar. Railroads may not be the revolutionary technology they were in the 19th centuryth Century, but they are just as fundamental to the economy – and just as vulnerable to organized workers’ power.
Keep up to date with the policy team. Sign up for the Teen Vogue Take