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The Great Railroad Strike

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The Great Railroad Strike

In the first half of the 19th Century the working class in the newly industrializing American society suffered many forms of exploitation. The working class of the mid-nineteenth century, with constant oppression by the capitalist and by the division between class, race, and ethnicity, made it difficult to form solidarity. After years of oppression and exploitation by the ruling class, the working class struck back and briefly paralyzed American commerce. The strike, which only lasted a few weeks, was the spark needed to ignite a national revolt by the working class with the most violent labor upheavals of the century.

Railroads were the big business of the mid-nineteenth century. The rail companies employed thousands of people and ran operations nationwide. The railroad transformed American society from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrialized one. The railroads contributed to an economic boom which pulled millions of peasant immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in search of job opportunities and a better life. However, this same industry took advantage of a vast labor surplus and exploited its workers.

A record number of immigrants were admitted into the U.S. during the mid-nineteenth century. Attracted mainly by job opportunities and cheap passage from all corners of southern and eastern Europe, a wave of immigrants flooded the American economy. This mass immigration created a labor surplus which produced a marketplace where workers could be hired and fired at will and had to sell their labor for whatever the going rate; labor had become a commodity.

Adding to the surplus in available labor was the boom-bust cycle. The depression of 1873 undermined the position of many workers and trades unions. With so many workers out of work, employers no longer feared strikes. If one man was opposed to his wages or working hours, a hungry and unemployed man would take his place.

During this period, many Americans, and particularly industrialists and the emerging middle class, came to embrace the doctrine of laissez faire. The poor were so because they lacked ability and determination. The rich were comfortable because of their superior talents and thrift, argued supporters of a new ideology which turned Charles Darwin's theory of evolution into a new vision of society's "survival of the fittest."

As the rich became richer and the poor became poorer, it was realized by the laborers of the railroad that their nation's economic growth and prosperity was not being equally shared among the people. Coupled with years of wage cuts (35% over 3 years), and workforce reductions, that then required remaining workers to work 15-18 hour days, the workers fought back.

In May of 1877 the Pennsylvania line announced another wage reduction of 10% to the worker's along with speed-ups (double the work). At this point the workers accepted it. Then in July of 1877 the Baltimore & Ohio line announced a 10% cut in pay. The workers questioned management, 'how could they survive on these wages and terms?' But the owners did not listen, instead they took the position 'quit if you don't like it'.

On July 16, in Martinsburg, West Virginia, some of the workers decided to 'quit' and refused to work. This spontaneous strike sparked protests in other cities including St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. In Martinsburg, some of the trainmen seized the depot and said no trains would leave until their wage cuts were restored. As a response to the depot seizure, the Baltimore & Ohio railway requested federal troops from the President. The President ordered 400 soldiers to Martinsburg.

Meanwhile, strikes were breaking out at important railway centers around the country. In Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania trainmen took over the

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