The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor
Labor History - Business History - Texas History
6 x 9, 296 pp.
2 b&w illus. Map. Bib. Index.
Pub Date: 02/23/2010
Red River Valley Books, sponsored by Texas A&M University-Texarkana
Price:        $40.00 s

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The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor

By Theresa A. Case

Focusing on a story largely untold until now, Theresa A. Case studies the "Great Southwest Strike of 1886," which pitted entrepreneurial freedom against the freedom of employees to have a collective voice in their workplace.

This series of local actions involved a historic labor agreement followed by the most massive sympathy strike the nation had ever seen. It attracted western railroaders across lines of race and skill, contributed to the rise and decline of the first mass industrial union in U.S. history (the Knights of Labor), and brought new levels of federal intervention in railway strikes.

Case takes a fresh look at the labor unrest that shook Jay Gould's railroad empire in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. In Texas towns and cities like Marshall, Dallas, Fort Worth, Palestine, Texarkana, Denison, and Sherman, union recognition was the crucial issue of the day. Case also powerfully portrays the human facets of this strike, reconstructing the story of Martin Irons, a Scottish immigrant who came to adopt the union cause as his own.

Irons committed himself wholly to the failed strike of 1886, continuing to urge violence even as courts handed down injunctions protecting the railroads, national union leaders publicly chastised him, the press demonized him, and former strikers began returning to work.  Irons’s individual saga is set against the backdrop of social, political, and economic changes that transformed the region in the post–Civil War era. Students, scholars, and general readers interested in railroad, labor, social, or industrial history will not want to be without The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor.

Theresa A. Case is an associate professor of history at the University of Houston–Downtown. Her PhD is from the University of Texas at Austin.

What Readers Are Saying:

". . . succeeds in offering a fresh new perspective, analysis and conclusions about one of the seminal labor disputes of the late ninteenth-century." -Michael Botson, professor of history, Houston Community College

“Theresa Case does more than revisit the long-neglected 1886 Southwest Railroad strike, a crucial component of that year’s “Great Upheaval” of labor. That, in itself, would represent a substantial contribution. But she goes much further to recreate the worlds of white and African-American railroad workers in the late 19th century, exploring with sensitivity the bonds of community, occupational hierarchies, the centrality of free labor ideology, biracial unionism, and race relations. The result is a sophisticated study that deepens our understanding of the Knights of Labor and race relations in the Gilded Age.”—Eric Arnesen, professor of history, George Washington University, and author of Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers & the Struggle for Equality

"In the first major re-evaluation in fifty years of one of the most pivotal conflicts in American industrial history, Case offers a refreshing blend of thick description and convincing argument. Drawing on a rich archival base, she surrounds powerful characters like Jay Gould, Terence Powderly, and Martin Irons with a lesser-known but equally absorbing set of local actors and is particularly adept at drawing our attention to ambivalent themes of racial cooperation and Chinese exclusion woven into the strike's extended narrative."--Leon Fink, distinguished professor, history department, University of Illinois at Chicago

"...a lively account...notable contention...colorful narrative...Case closely dissects the evidence to determine what went wrong."--Donald W. Rogers, Central Connecticut State University

In The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor, Theresa  Case presents a lively account of the Knights of Labor's famous  1886 strike against finan­ cier Jay Gould's southwestern railroads,  the  first  major  study  of  this  event since Ruth  Allen's 1942 book  The Great Southwest Strike. An. associate  pro­fessor of history  at the University of Houston-Downtown, Case plunges dee­ply into  manuscript collections, state  and  federal  government publications, trade union  journals, and regional  newspapers to argue that  the southwestern strike of 1886 figured centrally  in the late-nineteenth-century  labor move­ ment's  development.

Case's notahlc  s;ontention  is that  the 1886 strike emanated out of the inter­ play between the southwestern  railroad  industry's financial fortunes and  rail­ road  workers' class  culture,  not  just out  of  a  clash  between  the  nefarious Gould  and  Knights  of  Labor   leaders. The   1870s and  early  1880s were good  times  for  Gould   roads  like  the  Wabash,   Missouri  Pacific,  and  the Texas & Pacific. Thousands of "boomer" railroad  men  built a socio-cultural hierarchy  divided  between white skilled  workers in the "running trades" and an  array  of  black,  Mexican,  native-born white,  and  European immigrant laborers  in yard  and  unskilled  work. When   the economy  soured  in  1884 and  1885 and  overbuilt  railroads  responded  by slashing  wages and reducing crew sizes,  free  labor  ideology, anti-monopoly sentiment, community sup­ port, a saloon-based masculine culture,  and  nearly universal  hostility  toward Chinese  and  convict  laborers  all united  the diverse railway workforce  into  a "massive  yet  orderly  walkout,  across  lines  of  skill  and  occupation" along Gould  roads and  rival Union Pacific lines, producing successful strike settle­ ments and numerous new Knights of Labor assemblies, including  District Assembly  (DA)  101 in  Sedalia,  Missouri  (108). Case  thus  confirms the view of  Leon  Fink,  Kim Voss, and  others  that  the  Knights  burgeoned  over the  course  of  these  strikes  but  adds  that   organizational  changes   in  the order  portended  its downfall.

Case's colorful  narrative  claims  that  the culminating March  1886 walkout differed  from  previous grassroots  job actions.  It was a top-down  sympathy strike called by DA 101 master  workman  Martin  Irons and  regional assem­ blies  to  enforce   previous  strike  agreements. Irons   summoned  the  strike, moreover,    without    consulting   the    Knights    national   leadership    under Terence  Powderly. Unfortunately, strikers  got only  spotty  community sup­ port  this time,  and  they lacked cooperation from  skilled  engineers and fire­ men.  More  ominously,   railroad  middle  managers  refused  to  arbitrate   and secured  federal  court  injunctions against  strikers  on  solvent  and  insolvent roads alike,  a  prelude  to  the  1894 Pullman Strike. DA  101 leader  Irons then  gambled by widening  the  walkout,  but violence  erupted  and  the strike soon  collapsed.

Case    closely dissects the evidence   to   determine  what   went   wrong. Contemporary  congressional  testimony,   an    some    tstorians,    am    e allegedly  "pernicious"  Irons  for  egging  the  protest  into  violence,  but  Case finds him  to have heen a cautious leader who made misguided  and  desperate decisions when forces moved heyond his control  (185). Case also denies that racial  divisions  undermined the  strike.  Like  Leon  Fink,  she  concedes  that white Knights  embraced  the white supremacist  Redemption-era racial hierar­ chy rather  than  egalitarian "interracial" relations,  but she contends that  they did  promote   separate  "biracial"  black  assemblies  to  achieve  worker  unity across skill  lines, a strategy  that  met considerable success (136).3 Her characterization of this policy as a defiance of "Jim Crow," however, confuses the fluid racial atmosphere of the post-Reconstruction era with the  rigid seg­ regation  of the post-1890 period.

Case concludes that  the Great Southwest  Strike  illuminates the critical  turn­ ing point  in American history marked hy the 1886 Great  Upheaval of labor. The  strike, she contends, exemplified  efforts  by leaders like Martin  Irons  to establish   institutional  methods   for  countering  "mass  industry"   with  "the power  of  mass  action"  (226}. She   joins  historians like  William  Forhath and  Melvyn  Dubofsky,  however,  by  arguing  that  legal  and  governmental force  stymied  this  possibility.4 She  argues that  although   workers  were less united  in  1886 than   in  1885, it  was the  federal  court  in junctions that drove  the  decisive  wedge between  sllilled  and   unskilled  railroad   workers. Court  action  also forced  railroad  men  to accept  the  narrow entrepreneurial concept  of "freedom  of contract" rather  than  the broad  old  producer  vision of free labor,  thereby  eviscerating  the  rationale for  mass action. Case's  evi­ dence  also powerfully reveals  that  tha  labor  movement lacked the  resources and  internal cohesion   needed  to  confront  concentrated capital  and  state power in  1886, a vulnerability simultaneously exposed  by the  movement's disintegration following  the eight-hour protest  and  the  Haymarket incident.

Many  historians see  broad-based  labor  activism  in decline  after  the  1880s and    1890s,  but   John    Enyeart,   an    associate    professor    at   Bucknell University,  contends in  The Quest /or 1ust and Pure Law" that  it remained vibrantly  alive  in  the  Rocky  Mountain states  of  Colorado, Montana, and Utah. Thoroughly researched  in  regional  newspapers, archives,  labor  puhli­ cations,  and  worker  memoirs,  and  thoughtfully engaged  with  recent   labor Rocky Mountain  workers  embraced  women as "key players in  organizing drives and other fights for working-class rights:, though he does not system­ atically explore discrimination  against  female workers (246). Quest thus suggests that, despite their prejudices, Rocky Mountain workers' social demo cratic culture  unified them  more than  workers elsewhere. It  leaves unex­ plored, however, how much the  region's relatively large preponderance of Native-horn American  and  western European  laborers contributed  to  this over black and Eastern European workers.

Enyeart dates political unionism's decline to the mid-1910s, rather than to World War l's aftermath, and in fact minimizes the war's impact. Following the    1914  Ludlow   massacre,   he   argues,   employers   led   by   John D. Rockefeller's Colorado  Fuel and  Iron  Company escalated their  attack on   Rocky  Mountain   workers'  social   democratic   political   culture   by advancing welfare capitalism and arbitration  procedures, while obstructing union organizing drives and labor legislation. By the 1920s, employer resistance and ethno-racial  divisions incited by the Ku Klux Klan undercut Rocky Mountain  workers' political  unity,  though  activists "did  not  give up   the   battle."  (239)    Encouraged  by  pro-labor   politicians   including Montana   Democrat   Burton   K Wheeler,   they  continued   a   •constant battle for justice,"•guardling] pro-labor policies on the books" and sustaining a  broad  view of   labor  activism  that   would  reemerge  in   the   1930s (219,  238).

All three books confirm that American workers experienced the ideological shift from free-labor producer values to standard-of-living  consumer values from 1870 to 1920 but imply that the social and institutional context for this change varied from region to region. The  potential for  mass mobiliz­ ation differed: It was largely absent in Schmidt's South,  defeated by courts and  railroad managers in Case's Southwest, but somewhat successful in Enyeart's Rocky Mountain West. Likewise, the forum for labor activism var­ ied from southern courts to southwestern streets and railroad yards to Rocky Mountain political institutions. Finally, laborers showed diHerent capacities for unity in the South's relatively homogenous working class, the Southwest's occupationally divided workforce, and  the Rocky Mountain's social demo­ cratic environment.  Workers, it  seems,  moved  not  as  a  monolith  when they adjusted to modern industrialism but acted in separate regional working class cultures.


"Case provides a good description of railroad workers' views of manhood, identifying differences among those engaged in the various tasks. This study of an important strike provides useful insight into state intervention in labor conflict and competing conceptions of worker masculinity during the late nineteenth century."--Stephen H. Norwood, The Journal of Southern History

"Along with the greater story of the causes and outcome of the railroad strike, the value of this book is enhanced by many interesting details about railroaders' race relations, job duties, attitudes toward work, and so forth."--Kemp Dixon, The Journal of South Texas


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