Major Strikes

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877

In the year 1877, the country was in the depths of a depression. That year came a series of tumultuous strikes by railroad workers in a dozen cities that shook the nation as no other labor conflict in history had done.  The strikes began with wage cuts by railroad company after railroad company in an environment of profiteering by companies even as injuries and deaths among railroad workers occured with ever increasing frequency.

At the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) station in Martinsburg, West Virginia, workers determined to fight the wage cuts went on strike. They uncoupled engines and ran them into the Roundhouse and announced no more trains would leave Martinsburg. B&O company officials asked the Governor to intervene and send troops. A striker was shot and killed. But, the strike continued and over 600 freight trains were idled in the Martinsburg train yard

The Governor eventually called upon President Rutherford Hayes to send in federal troops. The owners of B&O offered to lend money to the government to pay the army officers.  When the troops finally arrived, the trains were able to move again with the help of strike breakers that had been brought in from Baltimore.

However, in Baltimore, a crowd of thousands sympathetic to the railroad strikers surrounded the armory of the National Guard that had been called out by the Governor in support of the B&O Railroad. A bloody confrontation took place in which 20 strikers were killed. The enraged crowd of protestors went on to the train depot and tore up tracks, destroyed a train engine and several passenger cars. The arrival of 500 federal troops finally brought order to the situation. However, strike by railroad workers now spread to other parts of the country.

The strike spread to Pittsburg and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Railroad strikers were joined by sympathizers from nearby mills and factories. Local militia would not attack workers that were fellow townsmen, so railroad and government officials brought troops in from Philadelphia to clear the tracks. In the process they killed at least 10 workers. The whole city arose in anger and a large crowd surrounded the troops and trapped them in the Roundhouse.  The crowd set railroad cars and several buildings on fire. More National Guard troops were called up, but many of the companies would not move against their fellow citizens.

The strike continued to spread to Harrisburg, Reading, and elsewhere. Police and state militia were again called upon to battle the crowds, killing several workers. This did nothing but further enrage many others. B&O officials and the press continued to talk about the 'communistic' beliefs of union workers. Federal troops finally arrived to help quell the situation.

The strike spread to Chicago and local police and troops were brought in to battle the strikers and sympathetic crowds. Again, the result was 18 dead workers. St. Louis then erupted. Here, too, railroad companies had cut wages. The railroad was effectively shut down. Eventually, police and troops were used to end the strikes over time. News of the railroad strikes spread to Europe.

When the great railroad strike of 1877 was over, 100 people were dead, over 1,000 people were jailed, and over 100,000 workers had gone out on strike. More than half the freight on the nation's rails had been stopped. The railroad companies made some concessions, withdrew some wage cuts, but they had not really learned any lessons about working with unions and treating workers fairly. Instead, they beefed up their internal company police forces, helped the government strengthen National Guard armories, increased political lobbying efforts, and began further preparations to break the unions.   For more information, see

Pinkerton detectives, known as 'cinder dicks', were often hired by railroad companies for workforce-oriented espionage and union-busting.

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 was a labor union strike against the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific railroads involving more than 200,000 workers. In March 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest United States conducted an unsuccessful strike against railroads owned by Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the 'robber baron' industrialists of the day. The failure of the strike led directly to the collapse of the Knights of Labor and the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

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