Marking the 140th Anniversary of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877

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Labor historian Bill Barry tours viewers through a B&O Railroad Museum exhibit honoring the strike in which over 100,000 workers participated, and over 100 people were killed

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Story Transcript

Jaisal Noor: I’m Jaisal Noor for the Real News Network. We’re here at the B&O Railroad Museum on the 140th Anniversary of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. I’m here with labor historian Bill Barry, who wrote a wonderful book about the railroad strike. So we’re here at this exhibit the museum has created about the railroad strike. We’re gonna get a quick guided tour through this exhibit with Bill, but, first of all, Bill, most people have not heard about the railroad strike.

Bill Barry: That’s right.

Jaisal Noor: Today it happened 140 years ago. It started right here in Baltimore in Camden Yards. More than 100,000 workers participated. They had to call in the, almost half the army to put it down. 10 people were killed.

Bill Barry: Right.

Jaisal Noor: Right here in Baltimore. Hundreds more were injured around the country. It was called an insurrection. It was called a riot and–

Bill Barry: Mob rule.

Jaisal Noor: A revolution. So talk about this really important, seminal moment in history.

Bill Barry: Well, what got me started was if you look at Camden Yards, the state put up a historical marker there to commemorate the strike. One of the things I think is very important is that workers need to know their own history because it’s a guide to tomorrow. It also needed to be done in a way that anybody can understand it. A lot of histories you have to have 12 years of graduate school to get through the first two pages. As a union organizer and a labor historian, I just thought this was a great moment. When we put the historical marker up, I was surprised and disappointed how few people actually knew about the history of the strike so I said–

Jaisal Noor: It’s not taught in history books. It’s not talked about.

Bill Barry: No. Nobody ever does.

Jaisal Noor: Today at all in textbooks or–

Bill Barry: That’s right. Many of the textbooks are incorrect in that it started in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When in fact, it started right at Camden Yards. In a time of small businesses and workshops, the railroad was the first national industry employed to tens of thousands of people. Both on the construction of the railroads and on the railroad operating itself. There’s a whole history of labor disputes on the construction of the railroads. Irish families living in tents and shanties along the rails as they went from the East to the West. We’re more familiar with the stories of the Chinese laborers moving from the west to the east, but it was a huge industry.

John Garrett became the president in 1855, an incredibly wealthy man and a really dynamic visionary, who saw the future as railroads and began to move so that the B&O went as far as Chicago, but it was linked to nationwide railroads. What you see here, though, is he took advantage what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” When the Depression of 1873 hit, he and a lot of the other railroad owners used that as an opportunity to cut wages so what provoked the strike was the second 10% wage cut. You will see–

Jaisal Noor: And this was a time when the railroad was making–

Bill Barry: Making money.

Jaisal Noor: Making money.

Bill Barry: Well, they were cutting back. There were some problems with the depression, but he never cut executive salaries, never dropped a 10% dividend to the stockholders, but began to cut people, put ’em on short weeks, all sorts of different events. But the minutes of the board meeting, which are up here and we have copies of it. The week before he said, “We’re gonna have a 10% pay cut and we assure our employees will cheerfully concur with our decision.” He was so confident that the workers would take it that they canceled their monthly board meetings for the rest of the summer so they could all go away. The following Monday, the 16th of July, workers went down to Camden Yards to get paid and get their assignments and they were told the 10% cut was in effect and they said, “We’re not working.” That started it and it spread all across the country; went to Martinsburg, went to Chicago, went to Pittsburgh, went to San Francisco, and dozens and dozens of small rail lines along the way. It involved the strikers, their families.

An interesting group that was involved were the militia, and the militia were the equivalent to the National Guard. They were workers, relatives of strikers, friends who were looking for a second job. I just have a newspaper article in the other room about how a militia was disbanded for fraternizing with the strikers, but what we saw here was the last Friday, first Friday of the strike, the 20th, the militia was sent to Frostburg and they tried to march from their armories down, and as the armory in the west side by the shot tower, the militia let their people, coming home from work, started stoning ’em and yelling at ’em and they shot and killed 10 people. None of whom was involved in the strike, right by city hall on Holiday Street.

Subsequently, then the president of the United States sent the army in and crushed the strike and what you see here are Gatling Machine Gun Companies. This is the Gatling Letter and I found that in the archives as a miracle a number of years ago and I can give you a copy of that. I have true copies of that I can send you, but we’d heard about that.

Jaisal Noor: So actual large scale machine guns were brought into Camden Yards?

Bill Barry: Yes, and the Gatling Machine Gun Company President is apologizing ’cause he can’t supply enough Gatling Guns. As you can see here, in that drawing here, where the Gatling Guns are. They’re being brought in from Fort McHenry and there other pictures that are in the book of machine guns around blocking the people off from. Here’s the original Camden Yards and people will recognize that obviously as the entrance to the stadium. The strike then went to Pittsburgh. They had a huge event the Sunday night of the strike, where the militia was sent. And one of the tricks that the railroad companies did was to send militia to the opposite end of the state so they wouldn’t know anybody. The militia that was sent to Pittsburgh was from Philadelphia. They were pushed into the roundhouse. And you have to remember that many of the people on both the strikers and in the militia had been in the Civil War. They knew military tactics. They got the Pittsburgh, Philadelphia militia in the roundhouse. They then got cars of fuel oil, set ’em on fire and rolled ’em into the roundhouse. So you see here, this is the Pittsburgh damage report, and the militia then came out.

Jaisal Noor: I’m reading it. It says 139 buildings. 140.

Bill Barry: Yeah.

Jaisal Noor: Locomotives.

Bill Barry: Yeah.

Jaisal Noor: 1200 rail cars were destroyed.

Bill Barry: Yep, by an enormous fire. Well, the Thursday night of the strike here, the Friday night after the people were killed, there was a wooden building outside Camden Yards, which was used as a telegraph office. The strikers burned that. You can see that picture here.

Now, one of the things that’s important in how the strike is portrayed. And this is a picture from Allan Pinkerton. And Allan Pinkerton started the first company spy company.

Jaisal Noor: The Pinkertons, which a lot of people–

Bill Barry: Right. Right.

Jaisal Noor: Have heard of.

Bill Barry: And his logo was a huge eye, and his motto was “The sign never sleeps.” That was the origin of the term private eye. But he had just finished before the strike killing 11 people in Pennsylvania because he infiltrated the union group up there called the Molly Maguires. In June, it was called The Day of the Rope, and 10 of them were hung in Pottstown, week before the strike started. But if you look at this drawing, which was in his magazine and in his book, the women, Irish women, are portrayed like monkeys. You see the underslung jaw and the big teeth and that’s consistent with how he portrayed immigrant workers as almost ape like.

Jaisal Noor: And this section talks about how the police were used.

Bill Barry: Right.

Jaisal Noor: To put down the strikers. Talk a little bit about that.

Bill Barry: Well, the police were, had mixed feelings about the strike. The police chief you’ll see in the slideshow put out a curfew notice and tried to clear the streets, but the police were related to strikers and their families. It was a regular working class job. The strike really was not broken until John Garrett, the President of the B&O, contacted Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, said send me federal troops.

Jaisal Noor: And this section over here deals-

Bill Barry: Yes. [crosstalk]. Yes. And they were sent in then from Fort McHenry. And if you remember your history, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected in 1877 in a contested election. Got the votes of southern states by promising to withdrawal all federal troops from the states and basically that turned the South back over to the plantation owners and the white supremacists.

Jaisal Noor: Which ended Reconstruction.

Bill Barry: Which ended Reconstruction. Exactly, but the promise was no federal troops in the states. He hadn’t been in office two months when he brought federal troops into Baltimore City to break the strike and you’ll see in his diary a concern about gee, we need to find a better thing. The whole question of industrial policy and the position of workers and what should the government do was all new at this time. People were just starting to figure it out ’cause this was the first large industry. In the years to come on the railroads, there were major strikes. The Knights of Labor happened in the 1880’s. The Pullman Strike in 1894 and to be fair, the First National Labor Legislation, The Railway Labor Act was passed in 1924 was really the result of this strike. It was that pressure by the workers and their willingness to sacrifice and willingness to struggle that finally got a law passed that gave ’em some protection, but what you see here are the armories with the weapons. These are just Springfield Rifles. These are left over from the Civil War and a new standard issue.

One of the things that was interesting was there was debate in the country at the time about whether we even need an army, and the army had not been paid for three months because there were people who said we don’t need an army. It’s a civic duty all ready to go into the militia. William Tecumseh Sherman was one who publicly advocated for a large standing army, and this kind of tipped the balance in the favor of the larger standing army.

Jaisal Noor: Can you talk about some scenes that [inaudible]?

Bill Barry: Well, these are the scenes of the armory marching up here. This large one here is the 6th Regiment. Their armory was over by what is the shot tower by the post office in East Baltimore and they were called out, and the guys had to march down a narrow stairway. The streets were being paved. It was a time. It’s 5:30 or 6:00 when people were just coming home from work. The mayor rang the bell at City Hall. It was called Big Sam, which only rings in times of an emergency, so people gathered. They started throwing rocks at the strikers, I mean, at the militia, and demonstrating against them. What you see here, then, is the militia shooting people down by city hall. As I said, they were 10 innocent people including a 14-year-old newsboy supporting his widowed mother. Another guy whose brother was in the militia, he’d got up on a lamppost to ask, “Where’s my brother? Well, I better get out of here,” and he turned around and go and got shot through the back of the neck.

Jaisal Noor: What were the strikers armed with?

Bill Barry: Nothing. These were paving bricks that were–I wouldn’t probably call these weapons as the strikers. They were stones that were left in Pratt Street that were being used to repave the streets.

This is a thing about Richard Zepp, who was a strike leader in Martinsburg. His grandniece lives in Northeast Baltimore City, Grace Barnes. I hope she will be here today. George Zepp, the brother, her grandfather, was also involved in the strike, but as a scab. Richard was a leader, but you’ll see in Martinsburg, the mayor was a railroad worker, all the militia were railroad workers, and so they said, arrest Richard Zepp. They did and then he said, “Well, Richard needs to eat first.” They let him go in a restaurant and then he went out the back door and basically nobody ever bothered him, but it was a great, great discussion.

Jaisal Noor: In your book, when you were talking about the power of community in this. And railroad, he’s talking about a railroad leader who or a scab was gonna go–

Bill Barry: Right.

Jaisal Noor: Operate a train, but his wife and his daughter [crosstalk].

Bill Barry: Got up and begged them. That was George Zepp.

Jaisal Noor: Oh, that was George Zepp? Okay.

Bill Barry: Yeah, yeah, but it’s a famous Zepp Family and there’s now a museum in Martinsburg which memorialized them, but I had a wonderful discussion with his granddaughter and she has memories of the grandfather a little bit and some stuff from the strike, but not much. She’s as sharp at 94 as you are. Sharper [crosstalk] probably than I am, but it’s a wonderful, so this exhibit will be up until next year.

Jaisal Noor: Okay.

Bill Barry: So people who want to come can come and it’s a great, great exhibit.

Jaisal Noor: All right, and Bill, as you were helping put together today’s activities [crosstalk] and events, we talked to some of the railroad workers and some of the union leaders.

Bill Barry: Yeah.

Jaisal Noor: Talking about how some of the conditions, some of the things they were fighting for–

Bill Barry: Right.

Jaisal Noor: –have parallels and roots in the strike that happened 140 years ago, but can you talk about this moment and in, as far as labor, organized labor, goes as worker–

Bill Barry: It’s huge.

Jaisal Noor: As the fight for workers rights.

Bill Barry: It’s huge.

Jaisal Noor: Talk about why it’s important to have this memory of what the power of workers today.

Bill Barry: If you see my slide show, you see the first slide is history is a guide for tomorrow. And I often will say, as I will say today and often, that when people who are religious have tough times, they read the Bible. When I have tough times, I read labor history, because it shows the determination and the spirit of people who said, I’m not satisfied with what I have. We need to find that now and the anger of the people who voted for Donald Trump, for example, needs to be channeled. You get angry at the wealthy people and then you vote for one. It just is inconsistent.