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