My most recent essay covers two different readings about the Great Strike / Upheaval of 1877. This event is a very crucial event in American history and was part of a global movement that was happening around the industrial world at this time. One of the later mentioned readings dealt more with the historiography of the event and one dealt more with letters and accounts of what happened during this pivotal moment in American history.
Now before we delve further into the essay one must understand what America was like at that time to fully grasp why the workers were so upset. After the U. S Civil War there was an economic boom in the country. There was relatively 50 years of peace in the US, (minus a short detour with imperialism in the Spanish – American War) a massive amount of natural resources and a constant influx of immigrants from war torn Europe. All of these factors plus technological innovations turned the US into an industrial powerhouse. In essence at this time America became more industrialized and with all these factors it was a capitalists market meaning that the workers had a clear disadvantage in regards to bargaining for wages, hours, working conditions, etc. The whole of organized labor was on the decline at this time; organized labor in America got its start in the Jacksonian era and died off with the Panic of 1837. In the years following the Civil War organized labor grew but with the economic depression of the 1870’s unions saw their influence and membership drop dramatically. With all these events being stated let’s look at the Great Strike / Upheaval of 1877.
So what was this major event in American history that little is known about except for those whom have made history their profession? It started with a common happening in the depression ridden era of the mid-1870s, a pay cut. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company issued a 10% pay cut to all employees, the second pay reduction in less than eight months. Railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia decided they had had enough and on July 16, 1877, workers in that town drove all the engines into the roundhouse and boldly declared that no train would leave until the owners restored their pay. The local townspeople, miners, and other workers from the surrounding area gathered at the rail yard to show their support for the strikers and this was the start of a great showdown between the workers and the capital barons.
At this time strikes or other actions seen as disturbances were usually handled at the local level. The mayor of Martinsburg tried in vain to threaten the striking workers into going back to work but the crowd stood firm in its resolve and prevented work from continuing. The local police were far too small in numbers and many of them felt sympathy with the strikers considering a lot of them were family and friends. In desperation, the mayor turned to the governor of West Virginia for support. The governor sent units of the National Guard to Martinsburg to accompany the trains out of town by force of arms. Some of the guardsmen where in the same predicament as the local police force and many of these guardsmen where railroad workers themselves. After two people were killed in the standoff, the Guard simply lay down their weapons and began chatting with members of the crowd. After the Governor saw that his guardsmen were ineffective he appealed to President of the United States Rutherford B. Hayes. President Hayes sent troops to help move the trains but even then they were sabotaged and harassed along their routes. Only one train reached its destination.
Now if this was all that happened it would have been one of many stories of strikes and unrest during this time but it soon spread out of the confines of Martinsburg, WV. Soon other Baltimore and Ohio units joined the Martinsburg strike as well as competing railroad workers and other types of workers. The movement spread into Pennsylvania, when workers on the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads joined their compatriots. Pittsburgh was the gateway to the Midwest, and so the strike widened to that region. One isolated incident in a small town in West Virginia soon spread all over the United States in cities such as but not limited to Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, Buffalo, Zanesville, Louisville, and Cincinnati. The police, the National Guard, and the United States Army clashed with angry mobs throughout America. Throughout the land, wealthy individuals feared that the worst had finally come; a violent revolution seemed to be sweeping the nation.
But as soon as it started then it stopped. In some cases the strikes were ended by force, in others the strikers simply gave up. The thing to keep in mind is that most workers were not trying to overthrow the government or the social order; they simply wanted higher wages and more time to spend with their families. The Great Upheaval was not the first strike in American history but it was the first mass strike to involve so many different workers separated by so much space.
Elliot J. Gorn, R. R. (2010). Constructing the American Past 7th Edition. Prentice Hall.
Fraizer, T. R. (2002). The Undersidde of American History: 5th Edition. International Thomson Publishing.