10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World

Larry Holzwarth - January 7, 2018

The first labor demonstration in what became the United States occurred more than a century and a half before the birth of the nation, when Polish craftsmen were brought to the Jamestown Colony to produce glassware and other products were denied the right to vote. The Poles went on strike in protest. Their importance to the success of the colony was such that the English settlers gave in to their demands, making North America’s first labor demonstration a successful one from the point of view of the aggrieved workers. The settlement was prompt and peaceful. The colony continued to prosper.

Throughout the 18th century, workers in different trades found it necessary to join together to petition their employers for redress of grievances. Indentured servants formed coalitions to seek relief via the courts, citing inadequate food from or living conditions. Skilled laborers such as shipbuilders and carpenters learned that standing together made it more likely to achieve concessions from employers in the areas of improved working conditions or higher wages. As corporations grew, workers unionized and their employers sought help from private security forces, local police, and federal troops to end strikes and prevent labor unions from gaining strength. Strikes often turned violent, and the violence often turned deadly.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
Jamestown, site of the first permanent English Colony in North America, was also the site of the first labor stoppage. History.com

Here are ten true stories of labor confrontations in American history, which changed the life of workers in the United States forever.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
Strikes against railroads had the effect of paralyzing the American economy. Catskillarchive

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

The Panic of 1873 initiated a period of economic contraction which stretched well over five years, the longest such period of negative growth in American history, longer than even the Great Depression of the 1930s. During this period the railroads were particularly hard hit, as fewer goods were available to be shipped. In response to decreasing revenues the Baltimore and Ohio Rail Road cut wages in 1875 and 1876. The following year, having seen little improvement in the financial situation, the B&O cut wages again. Railroad workers, who were then not yet unionized, responded by striking, beginning in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The strike soon spread throughout the system.

Workers refused to allow trains to be loaded, unloaded, or to move from the depots. West Virginia responded with state militia units, who refused to move the workers by force. The governor of West Virginia then requested federal troops. In Maryland, where strikers shut down rail operations in Cumberland, the Maryland National Guard was called up after lobbying of the governor by B&O President John Garret. The Guardsmen encountered protesters sympathetic to the strikers after mustering in Baltimore and fired into the crowd of “rioters”, leaving ten dead and more than two dozen injured.

The strike continued to spread, including to New York, where workers from outside the railroad industry joined with railroad workers attacking and destroying railroad property. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania workers struck the Pennsylvania Railroad. With local law enforcement expressing sympathy for the strikers the state mustered militia units to protect railroad property. Throughout the month of July, clashes between militia and workers led to the deaths of more than forty workers. At least twice that number were injured.

Strikers and sympathizers in Pittsburgh destroyed 39 buildings, damaged more than 100 train engines, and destroyed more than 1,200 railcars, before federal troops were dispatched to assist in bringing the violence under control. Late in July the chaos reached Chicago and other points in Illinois and Missouri. Throughout the summer railroad workers were joined by laborers from other industries as federal troops were sent to hot spots – ironically often traveling by rail – to suppress violence instigated by state militia, often encouraged by governors under the influence of the rail barons.

By the end of the summer the Great Railroad Strike and the violent reaction of state troops had led to the deaths of more than 100 people. Economic damage to the railroads was as high as $10 million ($220 million today) according to some estimates. The B&O attempted to implement changes for the benefit of the workers, largely to forestall more effective unionization nationwide. Workers and labor organizers recognized the power of workers operating together, and the drive for unionization gathered momentum.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
Jay Gould was one of the most ruthless of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, and the author of the Southwest Railroad Strike. Wikimedia

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886

The Union Pacific and the Missouri Pacific Railroads were owned by Jay Gould when they were struck by more than 200,000 workers who were members of the Knights of Labor, at the time one of the most powerful labor organizations in the United States. The strike was triggered when the Union Pacific fired a worker for attending a union meeting in violation of a previous agreement with the Knights of Labor. Workers struck in five states, and Gould responded by hiring strikebreakers, encouraged by the fact that another union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, refused to honor the strike.

The strike began on March 1, 1886 and by early April, after numerous incidents of sabotage and vandalism damaging railroad property, Gould was lobbying the governors of the affected states to provide militia to protect railroad property, and those non-striking workers who attempted to cross the picket lines. State militia were called out in Missouri and Texas, which also mustered the Texas Rangers. Strikers responded by increasing the attacks on railroad property and violent clashes between the state troops and strikers increased.

Gould used his considerable wealth and influence to ensure that the newspapers focused on acts of violence by the strikers, rather than those committed by state militia or his hired strikebreakers, most of whom came from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Random violence occurred in several states, often the injured parties were innocent bystanders not involved in the strike. While some workers not members of the Knights of Labor expressed sympathy with the strikers, many others did not. The lack of unity encouraged Gould and the state troops.

Before the strike was settled at least ten workers were killed by state troops or Pinkerton Agents, and the number of persons injured was in the hundreds. The hard line established by Gould, the lack of support from many other workers, and the inability of the Knights of Labor leadership to negotiate an agreement, and the intimidation tactics of the states’ militia and the Pinkerton’s led the strike being called off in early May.

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 broke the back of the Knights of Labor as an effective representative for workers, and did much to encourage management to continue to resist efforts at unionizing workers. Labor leaders in other industries recognized the need for more effective organization, and led by Samuel Gompers and others the American Federation of Labor was formed in the aftermath of the strike in December 1886, in Columbus, Ohio.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
The company town of Pullman, Illinois. Company towns and their administration were a frequent area of contention in labor disputes. Pullman State Historic Site

The Pullman Strike of 1894

Pullman, Illinois was a company town housing workers who built the Pullman Passenger cars and their families. Workers paid rent for their homes in Pullman, which had been established by George Pullman and in which he controlled all aspects of community government, utility rates, and other costs to the workers. In 1894 Pullman reduced wages in response to decreased demand for his railcars as a result of the Panic of 1893. He did not reduce rents and other costs in Pullman, and the response was a wildcat strike by over 4,000 workers.

Many of these workers joined Eugene V. Debs’ American Railway Union (the Pullman factory was not yet unionized) and the ARU acted to support the strike in Pullman by refusing to move any Pullman cars, anywhere. At the time porters in Pullman Cars were employed by Pullman, rather than the railroad on which the car moved, and the over the rail employees of the Pullman Company refused to support the strike. Despite other unions, including the AFL, opposing the boycott against Pullman, by the end of June the railroads were largely paralyzed west of Chicago, as sympathy strikers refused to allow any trains using Pullman cars to move.

The railroads responded by hiring strikebreakers, many of whom were blacks, adding racial tensions to the already volatile situation. President Grover Cleveland directed the Attorney General, Richard Olney, a former railroad attorney, to resolve the impasse. Olney obtained an injunction prohibiting labor leaders from supporting the strike by calling for supportive strikes, which was ignored, leading to the call-up of federal troops to enforce the order.

In city after city across the Midwestern and Western states federal troops and local authorities clashed with strikers, and violence led to injuries and death as well as the destruction of property. Newspapers and the public generally opposed the strikers, and the federal troops were welcomed by most communities as protection against the violence of the strikers and their destruction of property and disruption of rail service. Debs was eventually arrested on charges which included conspiring to disrupt mail service.

The Pullman strike failed in the sense that it did not end with the strikers winning the concessions they demanded, but it led to the state ordering the company to sell its real estate holdings, ending Pullman as a company town. More than 30 people were killed in clashes with federal troops or local authorities during the course of the strike, which led to more than $80 million in damages, the imprisonment of Eugene Debs (for six months) and public resentment of labor unions. In part to appease the unions and workers, the federal government created the holiday of Labor Day later that same year.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
Originating with Montgomery Ward Fabric Cutters, the Chicago Teamsters strike was a blow to the unions. Getty

The Chicago Teamsters Strike of 1905

What became the deadly Chicago Teamsters strike began as a strike by a small group of fabric cutters as a protest against their employer, Montgomery Ward & Company, hiring subcontractors who were not union members. The company responded by locking out the remaining union workers, and several other unions struck in protest. By April 1905, four months into the strike, over 5,000 workers had walked off their jobs. That month the Teamsters joined in as a sympathy strike, targeting Ward’s and their rival Sears Roebuck and Company, adding another 10,000 workers to the picket lines.

Ward’s attempted to use strikebreakers across the picket lines, and violent clashes between strikers, strikebreakers, and local police and hired security personnel became frequent. By May, both sides and the authorities were exchanging gunfire and beatings when they collided. The Employers Association of Chicago (EA), which had long resisted attempts at unionization of companies in the region, was determined to use the strike as the means of breaking the Teamsters Union. Pressure was exerted on the railroads to use workers other than Teamsters to drive the wagons which transported goods to the train stations.

An effort negotiated by the Teamsters to end the strike by hiring back the striking garment workers was blocked by the EA and the Teamsters called a general strike, which shut down groceries, coal distribution, shipping, and other critical industries. Court injunctions ordering the strikers to return to work were widely ignored. Violence spread across Chicago and other communities. President Theodore Roosevelt refused to intervene to end the strike. Faced with jail for contempt of court, many of the smaller supporting unions began to return to work, crossing picket lines of Teamsters and increasing the violence.

Investigations by labor organizations and grand juries revealed extensive graft and corruption by both sides, including the EA and the Teamsters. Accusations of bribery of and by Teamster and other union officials, government officers, members of the EA, and others were found to be accurate. While both sides were revealed to be led by largely corrupt officials, public opinion shifted against the strikers. By August the strike, which had been steadily weakening through the summer, was largely over. More than half of the Teamsters who had struck were never rehired in Chicago.

At least 21 deaths and more than 400 people injured were caused by the strike, and support of the public for labor unions was dealt a severe blow. The spectacle of hundreds, if not thousands, of striking workers and strikebreakers clashing with police and militia left the general public with a distaste for unionization which reduced Teamster membership in the region by more than half in the ensuing five years. The EA, an anti-union entity, gained strength which it would not relinquish for decades.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
A report on the violence in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, June 1900. Streetcar worker strikes plagued dozens of American cities. St. Louis Post Dispatch

Saint Louis Streetcar Strike of 1900

Between 1895 and 1930, streetcar strikes occurred in nearly every American city which operated a street railway system. Streetcar strikes were notoriously violent due to the nature of a streetcar system, which was spread across a wide area, with company property exposed and difficult to protect. Streetcars were necessary in emerging cities to get workers in all industries from their homes to their places of employment, thus significant leverage could be had by striking workers looking to garner sympathy for their position.

In 1899 the ten competing streetcar systems in Saint Louis were combined into two systems, both of which worker’s attempted to unionize under the Amalgamated Street Railway Employees of America. The Saint Louis Transit Company, the larger of the two systems, responded by firing its more than 3,000 workers, which were replaced by about 1,000 volunteer workers from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The displaced workers established picket lines and appealed to unions in other industries for support.

On May 9, 1900 the strikers and sympathetic supporters rioted in several locations around the city, attacking policemen and bystanders, with several shootings and at least one attempted lynching. Members of other labor unions in the city, while not actually striking, supported the strike by blocking streetcar lines. Police and anti-union supporters responded with gunfire, including firing into buildings where striking streetcar employees were gathered from passing cars.

More than 2,500 people were sworn as deputies by the Metropolitan Police, and random violence and shootings across the city increased. By mid-July the Saint Louis Transit Company agreed to allow the fired workers to return to work and promised not to impede unionization, it withdrew from honoring both promises by the end of the summer.

The Saint Louis Streetcar strike came to an end by the end of August, 1900, with nothing having been gained by the striking workers. The aftermath of the strike helped to reveal and remove corruption within the halls of the city government, but few were prosecuted for any crimes relating to the violence of the strike. At least 14 died and well over 200 were injured as a result of the strike.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
The coal wars saw the worst sectional violence to hit the United States since the Civil War. Wikipedia

The Coal Wars 1890 – 1930

The coal wars which ravaged the Appalachian states for more than four decades – as well as spreading to other coal mining regions across the nation – were the result of atrocious working conditions, poor wages, the company town system, and the failure of state and local governments to protect the miners and their families. The drive to unionize divided miners and ancillary workers, leading to riots, mob rule, mercenary private security forces, and considerable graft and corruption.

Professional strikebreakers and anti-union activists were used to prevent miners from forming local unions affiliated with the United Mine Workers. Since miners and their families usually lived in company towns and purchased food and supplies from company stores, the mine operators were able to use the tactics of eviction and starvation to control the behavior of their employees. Strikes were prevented or stopped by the use of armed confrontation, and mine owners often bribed local politicians to obtain the support of state militia and local sheriffs. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency became nationally known as an army of thugs for hire to end strikes through violence.

Strikers responded by attacking the hired guns and by destroying mine company property. In West Virginia alone, from roughly 1910 through 1921, pitched gun battles between miners and security forces led to hundreds of dead, thousands of injured, including many innocent bystanders who had the misfortune of getting in the way of flying bullets. One West Virginia confrontation, known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, led to more than 10,000 armed miners engaging an estimated 2,500 sheriff’s deputies, state militia, and agents of Baldwin-Felts in a gun battle in the West Virginia woods which lasted more than a week. The President of the United States, Warren Harding, declared the entire state of West Virginia to be under martial law and deployed more than 2,000 federal troops – veterans of the First World War – to restore order.

During the Coal Wars, public sentiment ran mostly against the miners, who were depicted in the press as impeding the economic growth of the nation. Much of the press was in the pay of the large mining companies and their supporting lobbies. Many of the miners, particularly in West Virginia, were recently arrived immigrants, which contributed to the public disdain with which they were treated. Efforts to organize were viewed as socialist, un-American activities. Union membership in the east decreased steadily throughout the conflicts.

Elsewhere, by the late 1920s, most of the mines in Illinois and Colorado were unionized, but mine companies continued to battle strikes through the use of the leverage provided through the company town system. Union strike funds were insufficient to support most extended work stoppages without outside support. The coal wars and the anti-worker violence which they engendered were a long and bloody chapter in the history of labor relations in the United States, largely ignored by the history lessons in American classrooms today.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
Cutting sugarcane was laborious, back breaking work which needed to be completed under tight deadlines. Wikimedia

Thibodaux Massacre of 1887

In the fall of 1887 approximately 10,000 sugar cane workers struck in Thibodaux, Louisiana, seeking an increase in pay. They were opposed by a powerful coalition of sugar planters, the Louisiana Sugar Producers Association (LSPA), consisting of more than 200 of the largest sugar plantation operations in the state. The LSPA supported the withholding of earned wages until the completion of the sugar harvest to ensure that workers remained until the end, retaining 80% of wages. They also favored the payment in the form of scrip, ensuring the wages would be returned to the employer via the company store system.

Organized by the Knights of Labor, the strikers demanded an increase in wages to $1.25 per day, with earned wages paid in full every two weeks, in cash rather than in company scrip. When the LSPA ignored the demands the workers went on strike in early November, a date calculated to coincide with a critical point in the harvesting of the sugar cane, which would rot and cause massive losses to the owners if not brought in and processed in a timely manner. About 10% of the striking workers were white, the rest African-American.

Governor Samuel McEnery was sympathetic to the sugar planters, motivated no doubt by the fact that he was a major sugar plantation owner himself. The governor ordered several regiments of the state militia to Thibodaux, including an artillery regiment. Their orders were to protect strikebreakers, many of whom were convicts dispatched from state prisons and local jails. After several skirmishes in neighboring communities the strike was limited to the Thibodaux region and the state militia was withdrawn from there in favor of local resolution of the issue.

Local authorities declared martial law and mustered about 300 men to enforce it under the control of the Parish District Judge, also a sugar planter. The city was sealed off and blacks were required to show a pass at all times or face arrest. Black strikers and Knights of Labor supporters were targeted by the Parish paramilitary group and vigilantes supporting them. The attacks took place over the course of three days, and the number of strikers and bystanders killed is impossible to estimate accurately. At least 50 were known to have been killed during the three day period, but bodies continued to be discovered for months later. The strike was broken.

The Knights of Labor was driven from the state and recruitment of workers for the union essentially ceased for the next 45 years. Most of the sugar cane workers returned to the fields, under the terms dictated by the plantation owners. The system continued to operate as before until the late 1940s.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
The Pinkerton National Detective Agency provided spies, undercover agents, and security guards to companies hoping to prevent unionization. Wikipedia

The Coeur d’Alene Violence of 1899

In 1899 workers at the non-union Bunker Hill Mining Company – the only non-union mine in the area – were being paid fifty cents less per hour than their contemporaries at union mines, leading to a drive to unionize. The company responded by hiring Pinkerton Agents to work at the mine and the nearby Sullivan mine to act as spies, reporting any workers who joined a union. When the union miners struck, demanding equal pay, seventeen were summarily fired and a warning went out to all union members to collect whatever pay was owed them and leave the company.

Union workers at nearby mines went on strike in support. Of these, a group of more than two hundred seized a train and loaded it with dynamite and additional strikers (most of whom were unaware of the dynamite). When the train loaded reached the Bunker Hill mine they ordered the non-union miners still working there to evacuate. Shots were fired and at least one non-union miner was killed. The union miners then detonated the dynamite in a mill adjoining the mine.

The mill was totally destroyed and several other buildings were then damaged by arson before the union members left the scene. Concerned about the amount of damage and the potential for additional violence, Idaho requested help from President McKinley, who sent US Army troops to the scene to help restore order and to protect the non-union miners and company property. The bulk of the troops were from the 24th Infantry Regiment, an African-American Regiment in the then segregated US Army. Miners were angered by the requirement to comply with orders issued by black soldiers.

The troops were used to effect mass arrests, and over one thousand miners were rounded up and incarcerated in a wooden enclosure which became known as “the bullpen.” Surrounded by a wooden stockade which the prisoners were forced to erect themselves, the bullpen was further enclosed with barbed wire, guarded by troops, and open to the elements. At least three of the prisoners died in the enclosure due to the living conditions. Most of the imprisoned were either union members or vocal union sympathizers.

The majority of the prisoners were held for only a few weeks, although without trial or legal action. Newspaper writers and editors critical of the operation were held for sedition and their publications were ordered to cease printing; most did not comply and continued to publish. The military occupation clearly favored the mine owners over the unions and temporarily weakened the drive for full unionization in the western mines, with the federal troops enjoying the support of state officials and most of the general public.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
Governor Calvin Coolidge inspects State Guard troops during the Boston Police strike, which made Coolidge a person of national renown. Wikipedia

Boston Police Strike of 1919

The issue of whether civil servants have the right to representation by a union was at the core of the Boston Police Strike of 1919, when the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, attempted to unionize the Boston Police. Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis denied that the police had the right to join a union, and refused to recognize it. Union members of the force went on strike, demanding recognition of the union and increased wages. The criminal element of the city took advantage of the absence of police patrols, and the state militia was called in to protect citizenry and property. This lost the Boston Police the sympathy and support of the general public at the very outset of the strike.

The militia, known as the State Guard in Massachusetts, was dispatched by order of the Governor, Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge became a nationally known figure as a result of the strike, during which he referred to the strikers as supporters of Lenin and traitors to their city and country. The presence of State Guardsmen and striking policemen in close proximity led to several clashes, at least nine people were killed in exchanges of gunfire between the two. National newspaper coverage was almost unanimous in condemnation of the Boston Police for abrogating their responsibility as public servants.

When Samuel Gompers urged the strikers to return to work and attempt to redress their grievances through negotiation with the city, Commissioner Curtis responded by firing more than one thousand officers. He then hired more than 1,500 replacements, readily available from the large number of recently returned World War One veterans seeking employment. Governor Coolidge supported the commissioner’s stance, denying that the police had any right to strike anywhere, at any time, for any reason, if it endangered the public safety.

Nationally, the strike was seen in the context of resembling “bolshevism” which was then emerging in the post-revolution Soviet Union. The terms “Leninism and Sovietization” were frequently used in describing the position of the Boston Police, including in the Senate of the United States. Sitting President Woodrow Wilson likewise condemned the strike and the strikers, pointing out that they were public servants rather than private employees.

The public backlash and the support of the firing of most of the striking officers was a setback to the unionization of public service jobs for decades following the failed Boston Police strike. Not until 1974 would a police force in the United States take action resembling a strike; in that case less than half of the Baltimore Police temporarily refused to work in support of other striking union workers.

10 Intense Historical Labor Demonstrations Whose Violent Turns Shocked the World
A newspaper account of the rioting fails to note that it began as a labor dispute, referring instead to the “mob”. University of Toledo

The Electric Auto-Lite Strike of 1934

The passage of the National Recovery Act in 1933 helped bolster unionization efforts around the nation, and the AFL made a conscious decision to increase their efforts within the automotive industry. Toledo Ohio’s Electric Auto-Lite Company workers were represented in 1934 by the Federal Labor Union 18384, which also represented workers at other employers in the region. Electric Auto-Lite did not officially recognize the union, which did not represent a majority of the employees of the company, but did negotiate with them on several occasions prior to the 1934 strike.

In April 1934 the FLU struck over wages and recognition issues, with about 75% of Electric Auto-Lite employees electing to remain at work rather than support the strike. The American Workers Party joined the strike in support of the FLU, creating a pool of striking workers in Toledo from which to draw manpower, and then created a picket line around the Electric Auto-Lite facilities, denying access to workers who did not support the striking FLU. Court injunctions soon limited the number of picketers, which the AWP ignored.

In response, Electric Auto-Lite hired strikebreakers to cross the picket lines. As tensions grew the Toledo Police appeared indifferent to the potential for violence, largely because the Depression had led to wage cuts and benefit reductions in their own jobs. Lucas County Sheriff deputies were sent to the site of the picket lines to prevent the eruption of violence.

On May 23 picketers and deputies clashed over the picket lines and vandalism and random violence occurred throughout the city. A major riot which became known as the Battle of Toledo raged for the rest of the day. Deputies were able to prevent a surging mob from entering the plant, but the fighting continued outside. The Ohio National Guard was dispatched to the area, arriving in the early morning of the following day. Late that afternoon the rioting began anew, and the Guard responded by firing into the crowd, using rifles, side arms, and machine guns.

At least two were killed and countless more injured. The strike continued, with sporadic violence for another two weeks. When it was resolved the union won a small wage concession for its workers. The company at first balked at, but eventually rehired all of the striking workers. The following year FLU 18384 became the United Auto Workers Local 12. Today Electric Auto-Lite is known as Autolite.