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Great Railroad Strike

The Great Railroad Strike, a.k.a. the Great Upheaval, was a period of intense industrial action in the USA in 1877. The strike began when 40 railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia went on strike in retaliation to having their pay cut. The strike spread like a domino effect throughout much of the working class in the northern US, until over a million workers were on strike in cities in 14 states, stretching from New York City to San Francisco.

The lead-up to the strike was the so-called “Gilded Age”, where the Amer­i­can ruling class were becoming fabulously wealthy off the backbreaking labour and interminable working hours of the working class. In 1877, the profits of the railroad companies were continually going up, even as they kept cutting workers’ pay (the strike broke out over a cut that wasn’t even the first that year).

The strike spread quickly along railway lines, but it wasn’t only railway workers who struck: workers in many other industries also went out in sympathy strikes. Sabotage was deployed in many places to shut down railway operations (in Pittsburgh, rail yards were burnt, for example). In St Louis, a coalition of organised strikers (the St Louis Commune) actually went further and took power of the city, before being overthrown again a day later. The ruling class was aghast, fearing a rerun of the Paris Commune which had shocked Europe just six months earlier.

The industrialists first tried “influencing” their workers to go back to work, with newspapers running provocative headlines trying to demonise the strike, etc. When that didn’t work, they pressured governments to deploy the military and National Guards to suppress the strike with violence. On 20 July, ten protesters were killed in Baltimore. A few days later, 20 were killed in Pittsburgh – among them, wives and children of the striking workers. On 24 July, thousands of workers went on general strike in Chicago; three were killed by police on that first day. On 26 July, the “Battle of the Viaduct” took place in Chicago, where cops hemmed in ten thousand protesters (and random bystanders) on a viaduct and shot at them indiscriminately, killing “several”. This galvanised thousands more people into protests, and police violence continued. In the end, 30 people were killed in the violence in Chicago, half of them boys under 18, and zero of them cops.

Xenophobia constituted a massive plank of the ruling class’s campaign against the strikers, as they demonised those who were immigrants from places like Ireland, Germany or Central Europe.

The strike was defeated by 1 August 1877, with over a hundred strikers killed and thousands injured across the country. Railroads sacked many of the workers who’d participated in the strike, and refused to rescind the pay cuts of the others. It was a demoralising event for the labour movement at that time. However, the events surrounding the strike did shift public sympathy behind the working class, so within a couple of years railroad companies were forced to start making concessions, and trade unions also started getting off the ground. In Chicago in particular, some of the activists who’d cut their teeth on this struggle (like Albert and Lucy Parsons) went on to play major roles in the labour movement going forward.

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