How workers fought back in 1877
The first great upsurge of the U.S. working class erupted in 1877. Hundreds of thousands of workers revolted against pay cuts in the fourth year of an economic depression. One out of four workers was unemployed.
Pittsburgh was the scene of the greatest battle on July 21, 1877. Thousands of workers there fought the militia—now called the National Guard—and drove them out of town.
This legacy of struggle inspires organizers of the “Global Week of Solidarity with the Unemployed” that will be held in Pittsburgh from September 19-26 during the G-20 Summit.
Railroads were the country’s largest industry in the 1870s. The world’s biggest corporation was the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose tracks eventually stretched from New York City to Chicago and St. Louis.
Railroad work was dangerous. Companies were slow to install safety devices like air brakes and automatic couplers. In Massachusetts alone an average of 42 railroaders were killed on the job every year during the mid-1870s.
Workers’ compensation benefits didn’t exist. Pennsylvania Railroad rules stipulated that workers’ pay “covers all risk and liability.” That miserable pay was often $30 a month. Some railroad workers weren’t paid at all. In fact, the labor of enslaved African people built 9,000 miles of railroads in the South before the Civil War.
“Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas A. Blackmon relates that Black prisoners built many of the Southern railroads after the Civil War. They included John Henry, who was worked to death.
Irish and other European immigrants built railroads in the North. Mexican workers laid tracks in the Southwest. Chinese workers built the first transcontinental railroad across the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
While railroaders and their families went hungry, dynasties like the Vanderbilts made huge fortunes. Railroad stocks dominated the New York Stock Exchange. Compared to Jay Gould, who bankrupted the Erie Railroad, Bernie Madoff is a minor thief.
Pay cuts provoke resistance
The failure of Jay Cooke’s bank in Philadelphia led to the panic of 1873. Cooke went bankrupt financing the Northern Pacific while General Custer died killing Native people who were in the way of the railroad line.
A six-year long depression followed. Average pay dropped by one-third. Homeless people, called “tramps,” including many youth, wandered the countryside.
The six-month long strike in 1875 of Irish immigrant miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields was smashed. Afterwards union supporters, labeled “Molly Maguires,” were framed-up, and 21 were executed.
Franklin B. Gowen, Reading Railroad president, and the biggest mine operator, was the prosecutor who sent these martyrs to the gallows.
Pennsylvania’s wealthy now want to execute Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was framed on evidence as flimsy as that which convicted the Molly Maguires.
After years of pay cuts, workers fought back. Coopers at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil refinery in Cleveland went on strike in April 1877 when their pay was reduced to 56 cents per day.
After the Baltimore and Ohio railroad imposed another wage cut on July 16, 1877, railroaders blockaded the line in Martinsville, W.Va. Soon the strike extended to Baltimore. The railroad’s boss, John Garrett, had the state militia shoot down workers. On July 20, 11 were killed in Baltimore and another 40 were wounded.
The next day was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s turn. Workers virtually took possession of Pittsburgh on July 21. The company’s president, Tom Scott, said that strikers should be put on a “rifle diet.” National Guard troops killed at least 26 women, children and men—13 in Reading and several in Philadelphia.
Scott brokered the rotten deal that put Rutherford Hayes in the White House. The 1876 presidential election was contested for months, with racist Samuel Tilden claiming the most votes. Ku Klux Klan terrorism kept hundreds of thousands of African Americans from voting for Hayes.
Hayes betrayed Black people by agreeing to pull federal troops from the South, thereby ending Reconstruction. African Americans were thrown back for generations. Part of the deal was supposed to include subsidies for Scott’s Texas and Pacific Railroad project.
Black workers and communists
The railroad strike leapt forward to Chicago and St. Louis. Toledo, Ohio, workers staged a general strike. Santa Fe Railroad workers shut down all the packing houses in Kansas City, Mo.
Black dock workers in St. Louis got the support of white workers. African Americans in Galveston, Texas, established a minimum wage of $2 per day. Construction projects in Louisville were shut down by Black workers.
In several cities the Workingman’s Party of the United States, the country’s first Marxist party, took the lead. In Cincinnati, WPUS leader Peter H. Clark, an African-American high school principal and an associate of Frederick Douglass, addressed strikers.
Communists were blamed for these strikes which occurred just six years after the Paris Commune—a pioneering attempt at working-class rule—was crushed. Jay Gould’s New York World newspaper carried the headline “Pittsburgh Sacked: Entire City in the Power of the Devilish Spirit of Communism.”
It was the federal troops sent by President Hayes that finally crushed the railroad strikes. But in many cases the bosses had to rescind the wage cuts.
Source: “1877: Year of Violence,” by Robert V. Bruce