By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests

Donna Patricia Ward - March 29, 2017

Industrialization and capitalism took hold of America after the Civil War. As Eastern Europeans fled the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they brought with them utopian ideas of a mutually beneficial relationship between workers and owners. Even in the aftermath of the horrific violence that emancipated thousands of slaves, southern laborers were hopeful for better industrial opportunities. The reality was different.

Industry required 14-hour days often six days a week. Working conditions were dangerous, and dismemberment and death were not uncommon. Laborers had little freedom, and in some instances they were paid in company script, which prevented them from ever saving money to move out of company-owned housing. Wages fluctuated with the financial markets. Federal regulations protecting the health and safety of workers and a federally mandated minimum wage were still decades away. Unions became the only way for workers to even attempt to improve their conditions. Below are just six labor protests that turned violent between 1877 and 1929.

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests
Destruction of Union Depot during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Pittsburgh, PA. Public Domain

The Great Railroad Strike 1877

Railroad development began in the 1830s. Coal-powered and later steam-powered locomotives hauled freight and people reliably and into regions where canals and waterways did not and could not exist. In 1860, there were 30,000 miles of track; by 1890 there were 167,000 miles of track. Expansion was greatest in the West and the South. Private railroad companies used federally backed loans, subsidies, and land grants to connect almost every corner of the nation. Railroad companies were extremely profitable enterprises. Workers for the railroads had few rights and little pay.

In 1873, a depression began, throwing many laborers out of work. For four years, major railroad companies had decreased workers’ wages to offset the impact of the economic downturn. When the railroad companies decided to reduce wages, there was no conversation and workers had no say to the reduction in their pay. To circumvent yet another wage reduction, workers began to organize themselves by joining the Knights of Labor, which was formed in 1869.

Violence is often accompanied by workers organized. Irish miners, for example, formed a secret labor society called the Molly Maguires. Members murdered selected coal company officials who presumably encouraged wage cutting to ensure company profitability. Wage cutting and the deskilling of jobs enraged workers in all industries, but the practice continued.

In July 1877, owners and managers of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, agreed to slash wages for the fifth time in four years. Workers struck to protest the wage cut. President Rutherford B. Hayes dispatched federal troops to protect the railroad’s property against the striking workers. The use of federal troops infuriated laborers in the East and especially in the Midwest. Railroad workers stopped working and went on strike.

In Pittsburgh, the state militia was called to end the strike. The militia fired on the striking workers and their families, killing 25 people. As news of the violence spread, so did the strike. Soon, workers as far away as Galveston, Texas, and San Francisco, California were striking in solidarity. The nation’s railroads were at a standstill. For two weeks, workers clashed with local law enforcement and federal troops. By the time the strike was squashed, more than 100 people had been killed.

The Great Uprising of 1877 failed to prevent further wage cuts for workers. Yet, the first nationwide work stoppage in American history can be viewed as a success for labor activism. For the first time, workers cooperated across ethnic and even racial lines to fight for a common goal: to end wage cutting. In the strike’s aftermath, workers joined the Knights of Labor, whose membership reached nearly one million workers by 1886.

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests
Haymarket Riot by Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain

Haymarket Riot 1886

Harvesting Machine Company had been locked out since February for demanding an eight-hour workday for the same pay. The general strike was an act of solidarity among union workers, and across Chicago and the nation workers attended public speeches, meetings, and informal gatherings.

Since 1869, as workers struck, managers hired people to cross the picket lines to keep the factories operating. The hiring of strikebreakers was extremely contentious. During the late-nineteenth century Irish, Italian, Germans, Bohemians, and other eastern European groups comprised most of the factory labor force. It was common for southern blacks, who had just migrated into cities, to be hired as strikebreakers. Factory owners believed that ethnic whites would rather work with little pay, work long hours, and work in unsafe conditions than lose their job to a freed black. This tactic added a perceived racial aspect to the labor movement that spilled into other areas of urban life.

As the general strike dragged into a third day, speakers encouraged workers to stand firm and stand in solidarity with their union. If they did not, the strike would be broken and workers would gain nothing. When factory sirens marked the end of the workday, striking workers rushed the gates at McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. To quash the violent exchanges the police fired into the crowd. Three men were killed.

On May 4, 1886, a rally was held at Haymarket Square. Located on the western side of the Chicago Loop, the Haymarket was just that, a place to obtain hay for working horses. The rally was peaceful. At 10:30 pm a police inspector asked the crowd to disperse. As the crowd began to leave a homemade bomb was thrown into the police ranks. An officer was killed and several others were mortally wounded by the bomb. Chaos ensued with the police and protesters firing shots. Within five minutes, the square was clear of all people except the wounded. Those who could flee did so. Seven policemen and at least four workers were killed.

Newspapers reported the incident in vastly different ways. Some stated that the workers-labeled as anarchists-held the rally with the intent to shoot the police. Others stated that the police shot and wounded each other in the dark and rainy night. Still others recalled scenes of “wild carnage” estimating that at least fifty workers lay dead in the square.

A quick trial commenced on June 21, 1886. Eight men were placed on trail together – five were German-born, two were of British heritage, and one US-born citizen of German ancestry. A motion to try the men individually was denied. The trial concluded on August 11, 1886, and all eight men were found guilty of conspiracy. After all, appeals had been exhausted, four of the convicted were hanged in November 1887. One of the convicted committed suicide, two others had their sentences commuted to life in prison, and one severed a 15-year prison sentence.

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests
The First Troops in Homestead. The Eighteenth Regiment passing the Office and Works of Carnegie Company, Harper’s Weekly, 1892. Public Domain

Homestead Strike 1892

The Homestead Strike began as a company lockout and strike on June 30, 1892. Located in the area of Pittsburgh, PA known as Homestead was the Homestead Steel Works, a Carnegie Steel company. Technological advances in steel production in the 1880s allowed for lighter and stronger steel, which garnered higher prices. The production process for the lighter and stronger steel allowed for quicker production, which in turn meant more steel plants and more workers.

As the steel industry expanded, skilled laborers, as in other industries, saw their wages cut and their jobs replaced by unskilled workers. In 1876, craft laborers formed the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA), which concentrated its efforts west of the Alleghany Mountains. The union achieved success in negotiating a uniform wage scale, regulating working hours, workloads, and work speeds, and improving working conditions for steel and iron workers.

When AA members went on strike on July 1, 1889, while attempting to negotiate a new three-year collective bargaining agreement, they seized the town. Townspeople of various ethnicities and strikers violently drove off a trainload of strikebreakers on July 10th. The AA conceded to the wage cuts but was able to control the steel plant. For the next few years, the AA successfully defined work rules and limited the Homestead plant’s management from maximizing output. This, of course, caused cleavage in the relationship between management and workers.

Henry Clay Frick was put in charge of the Carnegie Steel Company operations in 1881 and resolved to break the union. Frick, with the permission of Andrew Carnegie, began building walls around the Homestead Plant that were topped with barbed wire. When negotiations began for a new AA contract, Frick announced that he would only negotiate with workers individually, not with the union. Before the AA members could strike, Frick locked out the workers and hired 300 armed guards from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to protect the nonunion, or scab, workers.

The confrontation between the Pinkertons, AA members, and other union workers around the Homestead plant was bloody. On July 12, the Pennsylvania state militia arrived near the Homestead mill and surrounded it. Strikers and Pinkertons fired shots at each other from their various vantage points. The violence persisted for four months, and eventually support for the striking workers evaporated. By October, the state militia withdrew and nine strikers and seven Pinkertons were dead.

The union had capitulated and the skilled steelworkers had lost their power on the shop floor. At other steel plants, managers refused to negotiate with AA members. After the Homestead strike, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers lost all of its negotiation power and collapsed. The skilled workers in the AA were eventually replaced by mechanization.

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests
Escalation of the Pullman Strike by the American Railway Union, night of June 26, 1894, Harper’s Weekly. Public Domain

The Pullman Strike 1894

George Pullman was an industrialist who owned the Palace Sleeping Car Company. His innovation allowed people to travel on the railroads in the same grand style in which they lived. Linen tablecloths, crystal chandeliers, fine china, silver utensils, and the latest in seating and bedroom furniture adorned his lavish sleeping cars.

Pullman advocated for the utmost control of his workforce while maximizing his profitability. He built Pullman, a company town located on the far south side of Chicago, for the workers of his Palace Sleeping Car Company. Workers who lived in the company town were paid by Pullman in script for their work but then had to pay Pullman for the rent of their houses, for groceries in the company store, and to tithe at the company church. If a worker was unable to pay his rent, he was evicted and lost his job.

In 1894, Pullman reduced wages for his workers without corresponding to a reduction in rent. For workers that lived in Pullman, they could not pay their rent on the new low wages. When George Pullman refused to listen to the demands of his workers, they appealed for support from the American Railway Union (ARU). Eugene Debs, leader of the ARU, called for a strike on May 11, 1894.

On behalf of the Pullman strikers, Debs called for a boycott of any trains with Pullman cars. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) opposed the boycott as did the general public. As ARU members and other railroad workers boycotted in solidarity, the nation’s railroad, particularly in the West, came to a standstill. Tempers flared between strikers and those opposing the boycott. In city after city, violence erupted.

The newspapers vilified the boycott with editorials and political cartoons. As the trains remained idle, the United States Mail was undeliverable. With a court injunction against Debs and the ARU, President Grover Cleveland ordered the US Army to enforce the court injunction. Violence ensued.

Across the country, trains sat idle. Strikers vandalized the stalled trains by burning boxcars and coal cars. Debs refused to adhere to the court injunction and called for strikers to walk off of the job, crippling rail travel nationwide. State and federal troops used force to quell and disperse mobs determined to disrupt the railroads. Debs was arrested and the strike ended. 30 strikers died and 57 were wounded. In an effort to appease organized labor, Labor Day was designated a national holiday six days after the Pullman strike ended.

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests
Colorado Labor Wars, Victor, Colorado, June 6, 1904. Public Domain

Colorado Labor Wars 1903-1904

Go West, young man! The discovery of silver and gold in the West after the American Civil War created a population and mining boom. Men, and some women, flocked to the American West in the hopes of finding the “mother lode.” Most arrived with wild hopes of great fortunes. Their reality was very different. Searching for silver or gold was expensive. Individuals had to pay for a claim, the land in which they had rights to search for precious metals, and their equipment, along with lodging and food. Many obtained these items with the little cash they had and the promise that they would pay their creditors back once they found their riches. Few ever found those riches.

Eastern industrialists entered the Western precious metals market. Mines and company towns were scattered throughout the West wherever silver and gold existed. For the men indebted to others, laboring in the mining camps meant that they would receive an income for their labor and have access to food and shelter, as long as they could pay their rent from their wages. A company miner’s livelihood depended upon the sale of silver and gold; if those markets fell, their wages declined significantly.

In the late 1870s, miners in Butte, Montana laid the groundwork for the Butte Miners’ Union. Over time, the union had enough labor victories under its belt that its membership formed the Western Federation of Miners in 1893. This new labor organization included most of the workers who mined in the West, including Colorado. The formation of the union was fortuitous as the price of silver began to plummet at the onset of the 1893 financial panic.

As the price of silver declined, mining companies began making wage cuts. As with laboring counterparts in eastern industries, rents and the price of goods remained the same while pay was reduced. States with mining operations pandered to the mine owners to ensure that the wealth of their operations benefited the state and its political climate. Mine workers, on the other hand, were forced to labor for lower wages. In 1894, the Western Federation of Miners called a strike in retaliation for mine owners lengthening the work day from eight hours to nine hours without increasing pay.

Mine owners in Cripple Creek, Colorado, near present-day Colorado Springs, locked out their workers and began publicizing the need for laborers in the mines. The governor of Colorado, Davis Waite, a Populist supportive of workers’ rights, called in state troops to protect the workers’ rights and to maintain the peace. The strike ended with no change in the working days for miners. By 1903, state support for the workers had evaporated.

Beginning in 1903, the Western Federation of Miners wanted to get smelter workers an eight-hour day. Miners throughout the region of Cripple Creek struck in sympathy. This time, Governor James Peabody, a staunch supporter of business, used state troops to intimidate and forcibly remove workers. Joining the state troops were the mine owners’ security agents from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Western Federation of Miners struck in the mining areas of Colorado City, Cripple Creek, Idaho Springs, Telluride, Denver, and Durango from March 1903 through June 1904. Dynamite was used to sabotage mines and to control the movement of strikers. Riots broke out among union workers, nonunion workers, and supporters on both sides. Striking workers also violently deported company men or forced them to concede to union demands. Explosions of mines and plans to derail trains were a part of the labor unrest in the mining areas of Colorado.

Despite the regional violence among strikers, strikebreakers, and company men, there were few recorded deaths. This may be due to the influx of new workers entering the mining area and people abandoning the violence. In the aftermath of the Colorado Labor Wars, the Western Federation of Miners joined forces with the newly formed Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.

By Strike, Picket, or Boycott: 6 Violent American Labor Protests
Loray Cotton Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina between 1905 and 1915. Public Domain

The Loray Mill Strike 1929

Cotton mills littered the waterways of the North Carolina Piedmont at the turn of the twentieth century. Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Burlington, and Gastonia had multiple cotton mills accompanied by mill housing and company towns. Cotton mills in the South were owned by men from New York. The somewhat isolation of a still-recovering Confederate defeat in the American Civil War, the seemingly endless supply of cheap labor, and the massive expansion of the railroads made the North Carolina Piedmont a good place to do business.

Most mill workers lived in company-owned housing. Entire families would leave their tenant farms or mountain homes for the prospect of good housing and decent wages in the cotton mills. Like most of the country, the First World War created a manufacturing boom in all industries. Military orders for tents, uniforms, and socks rewarded mill owners handsomely and workers earned high wages. When the war ended, cotton mills began producing flannel, jeans, store awnings, and delicate ladies’ stockings. Despite the increased production of domestic goods, wages sunk.

The South did not experience the massive European immigration that northern cities did. Instead, the South was still finding its identity after the forced collapse of its slave labor system. As such, unions played a much smaller role in southern mills than they did in the industrialized cities of Detroit and Chicago. When northerners came south to unionize mill workers, they were often greeted with distrust and sometimes violence.

Since the conclusion of the First World War in 1919, cotton mills had implemented a stretched-out system. This meant that a worker’s production increased while their pay decreased, an eerily similar move made by other industrialists, most famously George Pullman. Mill owners needed to keep costs down in order to maintain their profitability. For laborers in the mills, this meant dirty and dangerous working conditions that caused dismemberment of limbs or loss of life, long working days, and low wages. As labor activists took an interest in the plight of southern mill workers, they began to hold informational meetings in attempts to unionize workers.

The National Textile Workers Union (NTWU) and the Trade Union Unity League came to Gastonia to unionize workers in the Loray Mills. Demanding a forty-hour work week, a minimum $20 weekly wage, abolition of the stretch-out system, and recognition of the union, 1,800 Loray Mill workers walked off their jobs on April 1, 1929. In patterns seen before, mill owners evicted striking workers from their company-owned homes.

The Mayor of Gastonia asked the North Carolina Governor for assistance. On April 3, Governor Gardner sent 250 National Guard troops. The arrival of the troops escalated violence among strikers, city residents, non-strikers, and company men. On April 18th, roughly 100 masked men destroyed the headquarters of the NTWU in Gastonia. The NTWU created a tent city that was guarded by armed strikers at all times.

The Loray Mill continued production even as workers struck. For sharecroppers or tenant farmers unable to get out from under the weight of perpetual indebtedness, crossing a picket line and replacing striking workers with the chance of encountering violence was a far better option. The strike continued for months with minor skirmishes continuing between opposing parties. Finally, on June 7, 1929, 150 striking workers called out the night shift. The striking workers were attacked and dispersed by Gaston County sheriff’s deputies. Later in the night, the Gastonia Police Chief and three officers arrived at the NTWU tent city and demanded that the guards hand over their weapons. In the chaos and violence that followed, the police officers and strikers were wounded and the police chief was killed.

The judge of the murder trial of the eight strikers and eight members of the NTWU declared a mistrial when a juror went insane after viewing disturbing evidence. In the aftermath, vigilantes ran amuck in the countryside terrorizing strikers and forcing them out of the county. On September 14, 1929, vigilantes chased down a truck with 22 striking workers heading to a union meeting in Gastonia. Armed men fired upon the truck and killed a pregnant Ella May Wiggins, who had become a champion of the union at Loray Mills. After her murder, the strike collapsed.