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In 1877 an explosion of working-class protest rocked the United States and propelled the labor movement forward in the struggle for economic and social justice. Pittsburgh was at the center of this historic upsurge.
In the era of dramatic industrialization following the Civil War, the most powerful of the big business corporations were the railroad companies. In order to protect their profits during the economic depression that had begun in 1873, they companies had reduced the pay of railroad workers by ten percent. In 1877 they announced another ten percent reduction in the workers' pay, and also that railroad employees would be required to use company hotels when away from home, which meant a further reduction in real wages. On top of this, they decided to reduce the work-force - which meant unemployment for some and intensified labor for those remaining. It was an ideal policy for maximizing profits, but generated deep and fierce resentment among rail workers and their families, and also within the laboring population generally.
In Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh's North Side), meetings were held in early June to organize a national Trainmen's Union - designed to include all railway workers and to organize a general rail strike for June 27. Information provided by company spies resulted in the firing of many union members, and the strike was cancelled - but the anger and discontent deepened. On July 16, a spontaneous strike erupted in Martinsburg, West Virginia and quickly spread to cities from St. Louis and Chicago to New York and Baltimore - hitting Pittsburgh on July 19. The bulk of the city's working-class population, many of its newspapers, and even much of the city government were openly in sympathy with the strikers.
Martinsburg strikers had issued a manifesto which captured the sentiments of many: "Strike and live! Bread we must have! Remain and perish! A company that has from time to time so unmercifully cut our wages and finally has reduced us to starvation has lost all sympathy. The merchants and community at large all along the line of the road are on our side, and the working classes of every State in the Union are in our favor, and we feel confident that the God of the poor and the oppressed of the earth is with us. Therefore let the clashing of arms be heard, let the fiery elements be poured out if they think it right, but in heed to our right and in defense of our families, we shall conquer or we shall die!"
Despite such passions, the Pittsburgh strikers sought to maintain a peaceful but effective work stoppage that halted all rail traffic. Rallies and meetings explained their goals to a largely approving public. But railroad officials and state authorities soon pushed events onto a different track.
To "keep the peace" and break the strike, state militia units from Philadelphia were ordered to Pittsburgh. (Militia units from Pittsburgh were deemed unreliable because they sympathized with the strikers.) On July 21, six hundred troops arrived from Philadelphia. Led by Superintendent Robert Pitcairn of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a posse of constables with arrest warrants for the strike leaders, they found themselves confronted by crowds of men, women and children. The crowds, loudly protesting the troops' presence and expressing support for the strikers, sought to prevent military action. The militiamen responded with a bayonet charge that resulted in injuries and provoked a hail of rocks from some sections of those assembled. The troops then opened fire on the unarmed men, women, and children, scattering them - and leaving at least twenty dead (including one woman and three small children) and twenty-nine wounded.
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As word of the massacre spread, thousands of workers rushed to the scene - many of them armed. The militia retreated into the roundhouse and considered using Gatling guns against the now violent crowds, but decided at the last minute that such a move would be unwise. As it was, the enraged crowds broke every window in the roundhouse, and some went on to set fire to the rail yards. The fire destroyed 39 buildings of the Pennsylvania Railroad, 104 engines, 46 passenger cars, and over 1,200 freight cars. All buildings on Penn and Liberty Avenues from Union Depot to Twenty-Eighth Street were consumed. It is estimated that more than $4 million damage was done.
From Allegheny City, the Trainmen's Union sought to maintain order, working to maintain an effective strike on a non-violent basis. Union leader Robert Ammon - who had worked for many years as a brakeman - coordinated protection of remaining company property and even oversaw the conduct of passenger traffic on the Pennsylvania Railroad for a few days. In the same period, other workers in the Pittsburgh area were inspired to go out on strike, including thousands of iron and steel workers and coal miners. Workers from other cities and towns in Pennsylvania joined in the strikes or in rallies and meetings supporting the strike. General strikes, mass demonstrations, and sometimes violent confrontations rocked cities in many other states as well, though none exceeded the violence of the Pittsburgh battles.
On July 26, however, regular troops of the U.S. Army joined with state militia units to take control of the city and reopen all railroad operations in Pittsburgh and Allegheny City. The strike was systematically broken throughout the country by similar means by the end of July. This was the first time in U.S. history that federal troops were utilized against strikers and labor protests.
Yet the workers' defeat helped to inspire future struggles. In his autobiography, Samuel Gompers referred to the 1877 labor upsurge in this way: "Made desperate by the accumulation of miseries, without organizations strong enough to conduct a successful strike, the railway workers rebelled. Their rebellion was a declaration of protest in the name of American manhood against conditions that nullified the rights of American citizens. The railroad strike of 1877 was the tocsin that sounded a ringing message of hope to us all."
Robert V. Bruce. 1877: Year of Violence (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merril, 1959);
Samuel Gompers. Seventy Years of Life and Labor (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1925);
Philip S. Foner. The Great Labor Uprising of 1877 (New York: Monad Press, 1977).
Paul Le Blanc is Assistant Professor of History at Pittsburgh's LaRoche College and a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. He has worked as a unionized auto worker, shipyard worker, hospital worker, and teacher. He is author of a number of books, including A Short History of the U.S. Working Class.
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