Friday, July 22, 2011

The St. Louis Commune & America’s Great Workers Uprising of 1877

“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.” (From David Burbank, Reign of Rabble, The St. Louis General Strike of 1877, NY Augustus M. Kelley, 1966—Quoted in Strike!, Jeremy Brecher, South End Press, Boston, 1972).
Paris Commune barricade, March, 1871
 These words were spoken by a cooper to a crowd of 10,000 workers in St. Louis, armed with lathes and clubs, participating in the national wave of strikes known as the Great Upheaval of 1877. He was, of course, referring to the Paris Commune, which had occurred just six years prior, in which the working class rebelled and took over control of Paris.
 The reference to the Paris Commune and the revolutionary rhetoric was not just bombast by an early fringe radical. Other speakers in St. Louis openly called for the use of arms and violence, not only to defend themselves against the violence of the militias and police hired by the bosses to suppress the Great Strike, but for outright revolutionary aims:

“All you have to do. . .” said one speaker, “is to unite on one idea—that the workingmen shall rule this country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.” (From Brecher, 1972).

In St. Louis, the strike included coopers, newsboys, gas workers, boatmen, rail workers and others. It was primarily a wildcat strike, as most unions had been making no effort to defend workers from the wave of layoffs and wage cuts sweeping the country. More significantly, it included both skilled and unskilled workers as well as black and white workers united, despite the fact that virtually all existing unions were segregated at the time. At the rally, a black steamboat worker spoke, asking the crowd if they would stand behind levee workers, regardless of race. “We will!” the crowd shouted back. (From Brecher, 1972).

The Great Upheaval was the first major workers uprising in the U.S. It began in the fourth year of the nation’s worst depression in history. It came in the wake of great accumulation and concentration of wealth by a few major capitalists, particularly the railroad owners. In 1862, Congress granted them huge swaths of land. In 1863, they passed the National Banking Act, which greatly increased the wealth and power of financial capitalists. In 1864, they placed a 47% tariff on foreign goods, which further increased the wealth of domestic capitalists, while also passing legislation making it easier to import foreign laborers, leading to the largest wave of immigration in history. In a process bearing many similarities to the current recession, the lack of regulation and oversight and ease of expansion led to large scale greed and corruption that finally came home to roost in 1873, when the largest bank in the U.S., Jay Cooke and Company, went bankrupt. Over 5,000 more businesses failed that year. By 1877, wages were down by 25% and over 1 million were unemployed. (From Brecher)

The Great Upheaval began in Martinsburg, WV, on July 16, 1877, when the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) Railroad slashed wages by 10%, the second wage cut in 8 months. The train crews refused to work, drove out the police and occupied the rail yards. Local townspeople backed the strikers and came to their defense. When the militia was sent in to run the trains, the strikers and their supporters defended themselves with guns, derailed the trains and guarded the switches at gunpoint. While they halted all freight movement, they continued to move mail and passengers, thus maintaining public support. When militia reinforcements were sent in, most mutinied or refused to fight, as they were sympathetic to the workers.
Blockade of engines, Martinsburg
 News quickly spread about the victory at Martinsburg, inspiring strikes elsewhere. Miners and boatmen were among the first to join the strike. When the feds sent in troops to run the trains, strikers and their sympathizers uncoupled tracks and attacked trains leaving the towns. A militia sent in from Baltimore was attacked and forced to retreat.

In Pittsburgh, the militia refused attack workers. Many militiamen even joined the strikers. The Philadelphia militia was brought in and opened fire on the crowd, killing 20 workers in five minutes. The crowd retreated, returned with their own militia, and burned the rail yards to the ground, holding off the firefighters at gunpoint. The Philadelphia militia had been hiding in the roundhouse and, as a result of the fire, was forced to flee. As they did, the workers and police fired upon them. In Allegheny, strikers looted the armory, dug trenches, took over the telegraph and railroad, and effectively took control of all economic and political functions.
Burning of the Union Depot by strikers in Pittsburgh
 Throughout the country, similar scenarios unfolded, with workers taking over the railroads and other businesses, and attacking police and militias when they tried to take them back or to bring in and defend strikebreakers.  In numerous towns, the soldiers fraternized with locals, refused to fight them and sometimes joined their struggle.

Workers were also winning many small victories. In Galveston, the strike was initiated by black longshoremen demanding a raise to $2.00 per day. Not only were they victorious in winning the raise, but they inspired white workers to join them and they too won the raise. In Chicago, stockyard and gasworks employees also won a raise to $2.00 per day. Remarkably, the strikes and occupations were so effective that in several cases the bosses were forced to recognize the workers’ authority. For example, the Belcher sugar refinery in St. Louis begged the strikers for permission to process sugar in order to avoid spoilage.

Labor’s Downfall and Lessons
Despite the many small victories, labor ultimately lost and no social revolution occurred. In total, over 100 workers had been slaughtered. One reason for the loss was that President Hayes sent in federal troops to suppress the strikes. These were battle hardened veterans of the Civil War and the Indian Wars who were not loyal or sympathetic to local workers. Furthermore, their commanders knew better than to (or learned not to) allow fraternizing. The bosses also created their own militias by having the police deputize their few trusted and loyal employees.
6th Regiment fighting in Baltimore, where 50 strikers were slaughtered
 Capital’s victory was not quick or easy, however. The strikers maintained considerable public approval. Many of the federal soldiers had enlisted out of desperation in order to secure an income during the depression, only to be forced to work months without pay. Also, the federal troops were relatively small in number as many 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 were not yet very good at undermining worker solidarity, monopolizing public sentiment, and winning their employees’ loyalty. They were also easily frightened and buckled more quickly to the demands and threats of workers than they do today.

Capital learned much from the Great Upheaval, including military lessons. Many of the old stone armories we see across the country were built during or just after the Great Upheaval in order to provide cities with greater fire power for the next great strikes.
Madison Armory, 1894 (image by Wisconsin Historical Images)
1st Regiment Armory, Chicago, 1890 (Image by Urbanoasis)
Macon Armory, 1884 (image by drivebybuiscuits1)   

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