Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 1, 2 or 3
It was “people power” from beginning to end.
The Harriman railroad lines included the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and the Illinois Central, which stretched from Chicago through Memphis to New Orleans.
It was a time of great labor upheaval. In New York in March 1911, 146 people died in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, where working conditions made it a 10-story sweatshop. In January 1912, the three-month “Bread and Roses” textile strike shut down Lawrence, Mass. In 1913, there was a massive Machinists strike, another textile strike (in Paterson, N.J.), and an Auto Workers strike at Studebaker; in 1914 the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill strike and the “Ludlow Massacre” against Mine Workers in Colorado occurred; in 1915 factory guards shot 20 strikers at American Agricultural Chemical in Roosevelt, N.J., and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “yellow dog” contracts prohibiting workers from joining labor unions WAS constitutional.
Against that background, railroad shopmen on Sept. 30, 1911, walked off the job and cost the railroads some $15 million before it ended – the equivalent of more than $360 million today.
The shopmen sought to form the Federated Railroad Shop Trades, made up of blacksmiths, boilermakers, laborers, machinists, painters, railway car men, railway clerks, sheet metal workers and steamfitters unions.
“More than 90 percent of the men” struck, according to the Boston Evening Transcript from that day. “As soon as the clock showed 10 o’clock the employees walked out.”
Strikers sought an eight-hour day but mostly just the right to organize, to exist.
“The core demand of the system-wide strike in 1911 on was for employers to recognize the system Federation,” wrote University of Toronto researcher Joseph Kelly in 2010. “The strike was an accumulation of years of frustration over management moves to increase productivity, minimize costs and tighten discipline over labor.”
In fact, IC president C.H. Markham and Harriman president Julius Kruttschnitt later conceded that their main objection was a well-organized employees’ system federation.
“Undoubtedly,” according to their testimony, “a federation of employees is in a much better position to force issues than is an individual craft.”
In Illinois, thousands of strikers shut down railroad facilities in Centralia, Chicago, Clinton, East St. Louis and Mattoon. But the job action was felt throughout the continent, affecting Kansas City and Omaha, Vicksburg, Miss. and Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Tucson, San Antonio and San Francisco, Seattle and Houston, Pocatella, Ida., and Water Valley, La.
However, railroad officials got wide-ranging court injunctions against strikers, and they hired hundreds of armed guards to protect scabs.
The Commission on Industrial Relations was appointed by Congress in 1912 to investigate labor strife generally and especially unrest during the New York City garment workers strike (1909–1910), the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company strike – where the Ludlow Massacre occurred (1913-1914), and the railroad shopmen’s struggles with Illinois Central and Harriman (1911–1915). It issued a 1916 report critical of employers’ treatment of workers.
Historian David Montgomery in “Age of Industrial Violence, 1910-15,” wrote that the commission found “repression by police, judicial and military agencies, which envisaged themselves as the defenders of society’s ‘good people.’ Small wonder that in all these strikes, and above all in the sanguinary three-year conflict on the Illinois Central Railroad, workers simply took the law into their own hands.”
Adding feelings of betrayal to struggle, some union leaders backtracked, urging strikers to return to work, weakening workers’ resolve and causing dissension in the rank and file.
In his 1918 memoir of the massive work stoppage, “The Lizard’s Trail,” Clinton, Ill., Machinist Carl Person wrote, “No other strike has played the industrial circuit for this length of time, with this large army of men, under such great expense to those who claim the ownership of the factory altars, while deserted by the labor leaders who cried in the storm that they were themselves responsible for.”
The walkout ended on June 18, 1915, less a defeat than a victory without short-term gain: solidarity among regular workers instead of better wages and working conditions achieved through organizing.
Today, courts still rule against unions, and corporations still resist workers unionizing, just like a century ago: An organized labor force is a worthy opponent in bargaining. Also, private security guards are less frequent, but they, too, persist, though with more subtlety in a wired world. And, unfortunately, some labor leaders are more timid than workers they should represent.
But real power remains at the grassroots.
[PICTURED: IC strikers, from "Today in Labor History."]