“There was a time in the history of France when the poor found themselves oppressed to such an extent that forbearance ceased to be a virtue, and hundreds of heads tumbled into the basket. That time may have arrived with us.”
A cooper said this to a crowd of 10,000 workers in St. Louis, in July, 1877. He was referring to the Paris Commune, which happened just six years prior. Like the Parisian workers, the Saint Louis strikers openly called for the use of arms, not only to defend themselves against the violence of the militias and police, but for outright revolutionary aims:
“All you have to do is to unite on one idea—that workingmen shall rule this country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.”
The Economic Roots of the Great Upheaval of 1877
The Great Upheaval was the first major worker uprising in the United States. It began in the fourth year of the Long Depression which, in many ways, was worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. It lasted twenty-three years and included four separate financial panics. In 1873, over 5,000 business failed and more than 1 million Americans lost their jobs. In the following two years, another 13,000 businesses failed. Railroad workers’ wages dropped 40-50% between 1873 and 1877. And one thousand infants were dying each week in New York City.
The Long Depression followed a period of great wealth accumulation by a few large capitalists, particularly railroad owners. Congress granted them huge swaths of land in 1862. The following year, they passed the National Banking Act, greatly increasing the wealth and power of financial capitalists. In 1864, they placed a 47% tariff on foreign goods. This further increased the wealth of domestic capitalists. They also passed legislation making it easier to import foreign laborers. This caused the largest wave of immigration in history. The lack of regulation and oversight led to large scale greed and corruption. In 1873, Jay Cooke and Company, the largest bank in the U.S., went bankrupt.
The Great Upheaval Begins
By 1877, workers had suffered four years of wage cuts and layoffs. In July, the B&O Railroad slashed wages by 10%, their second wage cut in eight months. On July 16, 1877, the trainmen of Martinsburg, West Virginia, refused to work. They occupied the rail yards and drove out the police. Local townspeople backed the strikers and came to their defense. The militia tried to run the trains, but the strikers derailed them and guarded the switches with guns. They halted all freight movement, but continued moving mail and passengers, maintaining public support. Militias started sympathizing with the workers and mutinied.
The Strike Wave Spreads Along the Rail Lines
News of the Martinsburg victory quickly spread, inspiring other strikes along the B&O. But most of the unions took no action. Some were so heavily infiltrated by spies and Pinkertons that the bosses easily thwarted any actions they did take. Consequently, the strikes were almost entirely spontaneous wildcat actions. And the uprisings quickly spread from New York to Louisiana, and from Baltimore to the west coast. The majority of protests were directed against the bosses and the authorities. But in San Francisco, they turned into an anti-Asian riot.
In the Keyser-Piedmont region of West Virginia, black and white coal miners united to halt a train guarded by fifty U.S. soldiers. They posted a handbill that said: “Let the clashing of arms be heard. In the defense of our families we shall conquer or we shall die.” In Baltimore, soldiers shot and killed between ten and twenty-two strikers.
Violence in Pennsylvania
In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a National Guard company mutinied. In Altoona, strikers surrounded the troops and sabotaged the engines. So, the soldiers surrendered. They fraternized with the crowd and marched home to the accompaniment of singers from an African-American militia company. In Harrisburg, the state capital, teenagers made up a large part of the multi-ethnic crowd.
In Pittsburgh, workers struck against the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest corporation in the world. Young boys and men from the mills and factories joined in. However, the militia refused to attack the workers. Many soldiers joined the strikers. So, the state mustered the National Guard. But the companies couldn’t move because protesters in neighboring towns were blocking traffic.
The Governor brought in the Philadelphia militia. These were battle-hardened soldiers from the Civil and Indian Wars, with no ties to the Pittsburgh community. Consequently, they opened fire on the crowd, killing twenty workers in five minutes. The crowd retreated, but returned with their own militia. They burned the rail yards to the ground, holding off firefighters at gunpoint. The Philadelphia militia hid in the roundhouse, but the fire forced them to flee. The workers and police fired on them as they ran. In nearby Allegheny, strikers looted the armory. They dug trenches, took over the telegraph and railroad, and controlled all economic and political functions.
Black longshoremen initiated a strike in Galveston, Texas, demanding a raise to $2.00 per day. Not only were they victorious, but they inspired white workers to join them. In Louisville, Kentucky, black sewer workers initiated a strike wave that quickly included coopers, textile workers, brick makers, cabinet workers and factory workers. Black workers in many parts of the south demanded equal pay to whites.
In Chicago, the Workingmen’s Party (affiliated with the First International, in Europe), organized a rally of six thousand people. At this gathering, a former Confederate Army Officer from Waco, Texas, named Albert Parsons, gave a fiery speech. Parsons was radicalized by the events of the Great Upheaval. In the years following it, he became one of the nation’s leading anarchist organizers. He was executed in 1887 as one of the Haymarket Martyrs.
As in other big cities, the police attacked the protestors in Chicago. One journalist wrote, “The sound of clubs falling on skulls was sickening for the first minute, until one grew accustomed to it. A rioter dropped at every whack, it seemed, for the ground was covered with them.” Police fired into the protest, killing three men. The next day, an armed crowd of 5,000 fought the police, who fired again, killing several more.
The Saint Louis Commune
The most well-organized and lasting uprising of the Great Upheaval occurred in Saint Louis. For nearly a week, workers controlled all functions of society. It was the only town where the actions were predominantly organized by socialists, led by the Workingmen’s Party. The party was organized in four sections, by nationality, to facilitate communication across different languages. Strikers included skilled and unskilled workers. Black and white workers united, even though the unions were all segregated. At one rally, a black steamboat worker asked the crowd if they would stand behind levee workers, regardless of race. “We will!” they shouted back. Another speaker said, “The people are rising up in their might and declaring they will no longer submit to being oppressed by unproductive capital.”
Women played a prominent role in St. Louis, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the men. According to one news account:
“Women with babes in arms joined the enraged female rioters. The streets were fluttering with calico of all shades and shapes. Hundreds were bareheaded, their disheveled locks streaming in the wind. Many were shoeless. Some were young, scarcely women in age, and not at all in appearances. Dresses were tucked up around the waist, revealing large underthings. Open busts were common as a barber’s chair. Brawny, sunburnt arms brandished clubs. Knotty hands held rocks and sticks and wooden blocks. Female yells, shrill as a curfew’s cry, filled the air.”
The First Uprising Against the Oligarchy
Karl Marx enthusiastically followed events during the Great Strike. He called it “the first uprising against the oligarchy of capital since the Civil War.” He predicted that it would inevitably be suppressed, but might still “be the point of origin for the creation of a serious workers’ party in the United States.”
Ironically, many of the Saint Louis activists were followers of Ferdinand Lasalle, whom Marx despised. And some, like Albert Currlin, a Workingmen’s Party leader in Saint Louis, were outright racists, who mistrusted the black strikers and refused to work with them, undermining the success of the commune.
Despite the many small victories, the upheaval ended by early August. No social revolution occurred and labor ultimately lost. Federal troops and militias had slaughtered 100 workers and imprisoned thousands more. Most workers did not get a pay raise. Anti-union legislation increased.
However, capital’s victory was not quick, nor easy. The strikers maintained considerable public support. Many soldiers had enlisted just to secure a steady income during the depression, only to be forced to work for months without pay. Also, troop levels were relatively small, as many soldiers were still bogged down in battles with the Nez Perce, and with Indians at the Rio Grande and New Mexico. Capitalism itself was young and inexperienced. The bosses weren’t as effective at undermining worker solidarity as they are today. They hadn’t yet mastered how to control public sentiment. But the capitalists did learn a lot from the Great Strike of 1877. In the aftermath, they constructed many of the old stone armories we see across the country today, in order to provide greater fire power for the next strike wave.
Brecher, Jeremy, Strike! South End Press, Boston, 1972
Bruce, Robert V., 1877: Year of Violence, Elephant Paperbacks, 1959
Burbank, David, Reign of Rabble, The St. Louis General Strike of 1877, NY Augustus M. Kelley, 1966
Foner, Philip S., The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, Pathfinder, New York, 1977
Lens, Sidney, The Labor Wars, Haymarket Books, 1973