Today in Labor History – July 6th

 

A strike against the Baltimore & Ohio railroad led to a series of strikes across the northeast, known as the Great Railway Strike of 1877. This was the country’s first major rail strike and was the first general strike in the nation’s history. The strike’s violence led governors in ten states to mobilize 60,000 militia members to reopen rail traffic. The strike would be broken within a few weeks, but it helped to set the stage for later strikes in the 1880s and 1890s.Federal troops were call out for the first time in a labor dispute, helping to crush the strike. – 1877

Striking construction workers in Duluth, Minnesota were shot down by the police. The workers, mostly immigrants, went on strike when contractors reneged on an agreement to pay them $1.75 a day. Mayor John Sutphin ordered police to keep strikers away from scabs, leading to fighting between strikers and police. There was an hour-long gunfight on the corner of 20th Avenue West and Michigan Street that killed two strikers and one bystander and wounded an estimated 30 strikers. The police eventually suppressed the strike through violence. – 1889

An all-day battle between locked out Homestead Steel Works workers and 300 Pinkerton detectives hired by Andrew Carnegie stated at 4am. The Pinkertons were trying to import and protect scabs brought in to replace the striking workers. No one knows who fired first, but the violence escalated when striking steelworks, armed with guns and a homemade cannon attacked the barges that brought in the Pinkerton detectives. Seven Pinkertons and 11 union members died in the battle. The strike lasted for months. Court injunctions eventually helped to crush the union, protecting the steel industry for decades from organized labor. Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman plotted to assassinate Homestead Boss Henry Clay Frick for his role in killing the workers. Berkman later carried out the assassination attempt, failed, and spent years in prison. – 1892

Rail union leader Eugene V. Debs is arrested during the Pullman strike, described by the New York Times as “a struggle between the greatest and most important labor organization and the entire railroad capital” that involved some 250,000 workers in 27 states at its peak. – 1894

Wobbly and anarchist labor organizer Joe Hill’s song “The Preacher and the Slave” first appeared in the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW’s) Little Red Songbook. – 1911

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
Chorus
You will eat, bye and bye,
in that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
And the Starvation Army, they play,
And they sing and they clap and they pray,
Till they get all your coin on the drum,
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum
Chorus
Workingmen of all countries, unite
Side by side we for freedom will fight
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain
Chorus

Transit workers in New York began what is to be an unsuccessful 3-week strike against the then-privately owned Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway. Workers were forced to sign yellow-dog contracts which mandated they join a company union. Most transit workers labored seven days a week, up to 11.5 hours a day. – 1926

Explosions and fires destroyed the Piper Alpha drilling platform in the North Sea, killing 167 oil workers—the worst loss of life ever in an offshore oil disaster. The operator, Occidental, was found guilty of having inadequate maintenance and safety procedures, but no criminal charges were ever brought. – 1988

Fourteen firefighters were killed battling the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. – 1994

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