1877: The Great Strike

 Drew E. VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University


 In 1877 many of the tensions underlying American economic and political development in the Gilded Age came to a head. Where individual proprietors had once retained labor, increasingly large corporations now hired workers for wages. These businesses faced straitened circumstances during the depression of the 1870s. Many had overextended themselves during the railroad building boom that followed the Civil War. Now their boards and managers laid off employees or cut wages, and many workers had nowhere else to go.

The depression undermined the position of many workers and trades unions. With so many unemployed workers available, stronger employers no longer feared strikes. If a worker disliked or feared his working conditions, another hungry man would surely step forward to take his place. Industrial workers now faced a marketplace that treated labor as a simple commodity. Skilled workers had responded to the rise of national business concerns like railroads by replacing their locally oriented groups with new national craft unions. But in the early 1870s these groups still represented fewer than five percent of all non-farm workers in America. The accelerating pace of mechanization also undermined the positions of many factory operatives by allowing unskilled labor to produce the same products that once required the command of special techniques. By 1877, craft unions represented fewer than one percent of all non-farm workers.

Workers in this period faced a bevy of challenges and potential threats. Many employers pressed their advantage by requiring their employees to receive pay in company scrip rather than United States currency or bank notes. This scrip could only be redeemed at company stores, which often charged considerably more than shops on the open market. Others required workers to live in company housing. Many workers labored ten or more hours per day, six days per week. Unsafe machines presented a threat to workers' health and safety, but courts consistently ruled that a worker accepted the risks of any job he accepted.

In this period many Americans came to embrace the doctrine of laissez faire, or the belief in the untrammeled free market represented a harmonious and self-regulating system producing the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals. The poor were so because they lacked ability and determination. The rich were comfortable because of their superior talents and thrift, argued the exponents of a new ideology that turned Charles Darwin's theory of evolution into a grim new vision of society's "survival of the fittest."

Among American businesses, the depression especially undermined the positions of railroads. Slow economic times, combined with a huge surplus in railroad capacity, brought the major carriers to a remorseless struggle for survival. Each in turn slashed its rates in order to attract passengers and freight traffic. Passenger rates fell by one-half, and freight rates by two-thirds along some competitive routes.

In March of 1877 the United States Supreme Court upheld the Granger Laws in the case of Munn v. Illinois. In response to the Grange's persistent lobbying on behalf of farmers and other rural interests, the state of Illinois had begun to regulate rates charged by railroads and grain elevators. The laws prevented the carriers from extracting high profits on those routes where they faced little competition from water transportation or other railroads. Many railroads believed that they depended upon these profitable routes for their survival. The laws also precluded the operators of grain elevators from taking advantage of their monopoly positions and virtually dictating crop prices to farmers.

Outraged, a partner in a Chicago grain warehouse had sued to overturn the legislation, and the case had wound its way through the federal courts. The railroads quickly came to see the fate of the case as a key to their future profitability. But in Munn v. Illinois, the High Court established the constitutional principle of public regulation of private businesses involved in serving the public interest.

Facing declining revenues, the railroads cut their remaining workers' wages. In the summer of 1877 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad precipitated what became the nation's largest and most violent industrial strike to date with a ten percent wage reduction. Several months earlier, the gigantic Pennsylvania Railroad had announced a similar wage cut. Now the B & O, another of the nation's four largest roads, had made its move.

Workers suspected that the railroads were coordinating their actions, blunting the effectiveness of a potential strike against one road by agreeing to take up its lost traffic until the strike ended. If a struck road did not face the prospect of lost customers, organized workers could not influence it. If the railroads agreed to help each other in order to defeat their workers, then simple strikes were futile.

When workers walked out on the B & O, their patience was short. Strikes began in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and spread to St. Louis and Chicago. The railroad called in the usual strikebreakers, further enraging workers. But strikers not only refused to work, they took to preventing strikebreakers from operating trains as well. Strikers and their sympathizers clashed with militias and regular army troops in violent confrontations in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other B & O cities.

The strike continued to spread and brought railroad traffic to a near standstill across the North. On July 21 workers blocked freight traffic in East St. Louis. Three days later, mobs effectively closed the Baltimore and Ohio and Illinois Central railroad yards in Chicago, while strikers halted railroad traffic at Bloomington, Aurora, Peoria, Decatur, Carbondale, and other railroad junctions throughout the state.

Coal miners also began strikes at mines near Braidwood, LaSalle, Springfield, and Carbondale. Like railroads, mining companies sought to cut their expenses in hard times and repeatedly reduced miners' pay. Miners labored twelve to fourteen hours a day, six hours a week, in hazardous conditions. Most were paid in company scrip. In winter miners did not see daylight from one Sunday to the next. Those who protested were fired and blacklisted.

At Braidwood, coal operators brought in 400 African-American strikebreakers to replace striking miners. When strikers forced their replacements to leave town, the National Guard reinstated them, and eventually broke the strike. In the summer of 1877 the National Guard put down other disturbances in Peoria, Galesburg, Decatur, East St. Louis, and LaSalle.

The mayor of Chicago summoned 5000 vigilantes to help restore order there, and received the assistance of National Guard and regular Army units as well. The Chicago Times reported that "TERRORS REIGN, THE STREETS OF CHICAGO GIVEN OVER TO HOWLING MOBS OF THIEVES AND CUTTHROATS." Police clashed with crowds on July 24, but events reached their culmination the next day. Bloody encounters between police and enraged mobs occurred on Halted Street at 12th and 16th streets, on the Halted Street viaduct, and on Canal Street. Colonel Philip Sheridan's cavalry, newly recalled from the South, restored order after killing 30 Chicagoans and wounding many more.

The Great Strike of 1877 exerted a profound effect upon American business, as well as political and intellectual life. Many employers' organizations concluded that wage cuts had reached their rock bottom. The men would stand for no more. The strikes also jolted an increasingly complacent middle class, many of whom had no knowledge of the conditions that laborers faced every day. In the summer of 1877, these conditions came to light.

The shibboleths of Social Darwinism now appeared in a new light as well, and intellectuals began a struggle to resolve a dilemma alternately known as "the labor question," and "the social question." In a society increasingly populated by workers dependent upon large corporations for wages, cut and dried individualism could not provide a reliable guide to future growth, they concluded. Instead, many Americans came to believe that they would have to fashion a new order that mitigated the effects of a market economy and allowed workers to live meaningful, healthy lives. The Granger laws upheld in the case of Munn v. Illinois pointed to the potential growth of government policies able to protect citizens through regulation in the public interest. But many Illinoisans, as well as other Americans, turned to the promise of voluntary private action as well.