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 When Workers Took Power in America, Part 1

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Age : 46
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Registration date : 2006-08-21

PostSubject: When Workers Took Power in America, Part 1   Mon Aug 21, 2006 10:08 pm

From Workers' Republic (No. 2, Spring 2005), the political journal of the Communist League.

It is a common occurrence in these days that “middle class” defenders of the capitalist system will tell working people that they “never have and never will” unite and fight for their own class interests.

The goal of these elements, of course, is to demoralize and discourage workers from ever proving them wrong. However, this statement is in fact incorrect. There is one shining example of working people taking power in their own name in U.S. history: the St. Louis Commune of 1877.

The St. Louis Commune was the high point of the wave of strikes and demonstrations known as the Great Upheaval of 1877. The Great Upheaval was a direct result of the democratic revolution that was unleashed as a result of the Union victory in the Civil War and the establishment of Reconstruction.

As the movement for the abolition of slavery transformed into a struggle for civil rights and equality, many of the most consistent fighters for African American freedom took their radical-democratic philosophy and began applying it to the struggle of working people for their rights.

Wendell Phillips, for example, was an active participant in the Labor-Reform movement of the 1870s, and lectured repeatedly on the struggle for workers’ liberation. “I hail the labor movement for two reasons,” said Phillips in 1872; “and one is, that it is my only hope for democracy.”

By the late 1870s, however, this growing movement for workers’ liberation was confronted with a major crisis of the capitalist system. The economic depression that began in 1873 had turned into a full-fledged panic, and the downturn had lasted longer than any other in U.S. history; millions of unemployed workers crisscrossed the country looking for jobs.

The presidential election 1876 had led to a constitutional crisis that saw Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes installed in the White House through a backroom deal to end Reconstruction. Finally, the ongoing Indian Wars in the territories of the West were on the verge of breaking the back of the U.S. military; the defeat of Custer’s cavalry at Little Big Horn in 1876 had stung the ruling capitalists even more than some of the battles of the Civil War.

During this time, the workers of the U.S. had begun to organize themselves independently. Labor unions, including the radical Order of the Knights of Labor, had begun organizing on a mass scale — even though the most powerful corporations of the day, including the railroads, were relatively successful in suppressing this movement.

The Labor-Reform movement of the early 1870s had, by 1876, reorganized itself as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (later named the Socialist Labor Party); a wing of the Party, led by Victoria Woodhull, proposed a presidential ticket of herself and Frederick Douglass, under the banner of the “Equal Rights Party.” The example of the first workers’ republic ever established, the 1871 Paris Commune, was still fresh in the minds of many working people.

By the spring of 1877, the ruling capitalists of the U.S. had begun to sense this tide of radicalism developing into a full-blown revolutionary ferment. Goldwin Smith, a British journalist, wrote in September 1877 edition of The Contemporary Review that the wealthy elite were “pervaded by an uneasy feeling that they were living over a mine of social and industrial discontent ... and that some day this mine would explode and blow society into the air.” That explosion was the Great Upheaval of 1877.

The Upheaval began on July 16, 1877, in the railroad town of Martinsburg, West Virginia. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad on that day cut wages by 10 percent, which was the second such cut in eight months.

Workers responded by uncoupling the engines of freight trains, driving them into the roundhouse and telling the bosses that no train would move until the cut was rescinded. The next morning, local militia attempted to take a train out of the yard, but after a fatal exchange between a soldier and a striker, the attempt to break the blockade was abandoned.

News of the successful strike at Martinsburg spread along the entire B&O line. Spontaneous (we would now call them “wildcat”) strikes broke out, with their center remaining in Martinsburg. The governor of W. Va. called on the last armed forces in the state to march on the strikers’ center.

However, when they arrived, they refused to challenge the workers, and retreated to the local courthouse. In response, the governor requested federal troops from Washington, citing “domestic violence” that did not exist (in fact, the Martinsburg strike, apart from the two fatalities on the second day, was perfectly peaceful). The next day, President Hayes sent 300 soldiers to suppress what his Secretary of War was calling an “insurrection.”

On July 19, the soldiers arrived in Martinsburg and secured the railroad. While none of the workers crossed the picket line, strikebreakers from Baltimore (where a similar strike that started on the same day was broken) attempted to run freight back and forth between the two cities. But most of the trains never made it; they were intercepted by mobile pickets composed of workers in solidarity with the strikers.

As a result, the strike began to spread into Maryland. Like before, the B&O capitalists called on the governor of Maryland to call out the militia and break the strike. This time, however, when the soldiers attempted to march from Baltimore, the workers of the city stoned them into disorder and broke their lines.

At this point, the strike began to spread, not only to other cities but to other occupations. Boatmen on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, a thoroughfare for helping to move cargo from Baltimore to Cincinnati, had helped with the seizure of trains in solidarity with the Martinsburg strikers. Mill workers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, joined the strike of the railroad workers in that city.

In Allegheny, Penn., workers seized the local armory and declared the state militia to be without legal authority, declaring them to be no more than a mob. Most importantly, they seized the local telegraph office and began sending messages up and down the line, and had taken over control of the railroad itself. From Chicago to New York City, workers were rising up and fighting for their lives.

Increasingly, as the strike spread to other railroads, soldiers sent to suppress the strike began to take sides with the strikers. In Reading, Penn., for example, fresh troops sent in after the first companies were stoned by workers, resulting in the militia killing 11, told them the following day, “If you fire at the mob, we’ll fire at you.” Similar incidents occurred in New York, New Jersey and other parts of Pennsylvania.

As well, the Great Upheaval of 1877 saw some of the first joint action by Black and white workers, especially in the South. In Texas and Kentucky, for example, Black workers initiated action in solidarity with the railroad workers and for their own interests. They were quickly joined by their white brothers, and ultimately won their immediate demands in the process. This dynamic was a foreshadowing of the struggles of the 1930s.

This is the context in which the uprising reached the banks of the Mississippi River. The key difference between the other centers of the Great Upheaval and what took place in St. Louis was the presence of an organized political movement with a mass base of support, the Workingmen’s Party. The actions of the WP were central to the advancing of the strike in St. Louis to the point where it had effectively taken power. Even though they only held control of the city for a few days, it was a signpost for the future of the workers’ movement.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Strike!, by Jeremy Brecher, on the events in St. Louis. While Brecher himself was not willing (or able, perhaps) to draw the necessary conclusions from his reading of the history of the day, it is clear from the wealth of information on the subject today that the Executive Committee organized by the WP was more than a strike committee.

Encompassing workers from every industry in the St. Louis area, both those chosen by their co-workers and those who felt the need to represent themselves, the Executive Committee was perhaps the first attempt at the organization of an assembly of workers’ representatives — a workers’ council — for the administration of a municipality. This was close to 30 years before the Russian workers formed a similar organ of working people’s power during the 1905 revolution, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

While Brecher is accurate in portraying the strikes throughout most of the country as lacking direction, this was not the case in St. Louis. This is why U.S. troops, withdrawn from areas of the South only a few days before, were rushed up the Mississippi to suppress the Commune and break the strike. Most of the over 100 strikers killed during the Great Upheaval were massacred in defense of St. Louis. Like the Communards of Paris, they died defending the future of humanity. As communists, we should honor these comrades of the past as we honor those who have since given their lives for the liberation of working people.



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PostSubject: When Workers Took Power in America, Part 2   Mon Aug 21, 2006 10:08 pm

the day the railroad strike reached East St. Louis, the St. Louis Workingmen’s Party marched 500 strong across the river to join a meeting of 1,000 railroad workers and residents. Said one of the speakers, “All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea — that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.”[1] The St. Louis General Strike, the peak of the Great Upheaval, for a time nearly realized that goal.

The railroad workers at that meeting voted for a strike, set up a committee of one man from each railroad, and occupied the Relay Depot as their headquarters. The committee promptly posted General Order No. 1, forbidding freight trains from leaving any yard.

That night, across the river in St. Louis, the Workingmen’s Party called a mass meeting, with crowds so large that three separate speakers’ stands were set up simultaneously. “The workingmen,” said one speaker, “intend now to assert their rights, even if the result is shedding of blood.... They are ready to take up arms at any moment.”[2]

Next morning, workers from different shops and plants began to appear at the party headquarters, requesting that committees be sent around to “notify them to stop work and join the other workingmen, that they might have a reason for doing so.”[3] The party began to send such committees around, with unexpected results. The coopers[4] struck, marching from shop to shop with a fife and drum shouting, “Come out, come out! No barrels less than nine cents.”[5] Newsboys, gasworkers, boatmen, and engineers struck as well. Railroadmen arrived from East St. Louis on engines and flatcars they had commandeered, moving through the yards enforcing General Order No. 1 and closing a wire works.

That day, an “Executive Committee” formed, based at the Workingmen’s Party headquarters, to coordinate the strike. As one historian wrote, “Nobody ever knew who that executive committee really was; it seems to have been a rather loose body composed of whomsoever chanced to come in and take part in its deliberations.”[6]

In the evening, 1,500 men, mostly molders and mechanics, armed themselves with lathes and clubs and marched to the evening’s rally. To a crowd of 10,000 the first speaker, a cooper, began, “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.”[7] Another speaker called upon the workingmen to organize into companies of 10, 20, and 100, to establish patrols to protect property, and to “organize force to meet force.” Someone suggested that “the colored men should have a chance.” A black steamboatman spoke for the roustabouts and levee workers. He asked the crowd would they stand behind the levee strikers, regardless of color? “We will!” the crowd shouted back.[8]

The general strike got under way in earnest the next morning. The employees of a beef cannery struck and paraded. The coopers met and discussed their objectives. A force of strikers marched to the levee, where a crowd of steamboatmen and roustabouts “of all colors”[9] forced the captains of boat after boat to sign written promises of 50 percent higher pay. Finally everyone assembled for the day’s great march. Six hundred factory workers marched up behind a brass band; a company of railroad strikers came with coupling pins, brake rods, red signal flags and other “irons and implements emblematic of their calling.”[10]

Strikers’ committees went out ahead to call out those still working, and as the march came by, a loaf of bread on a flag-staff for its emblem, workers in foundries, bagging companies, flour mills, bakeries, chemical, zinc and white lead works poured out of their shops and into the crowd. In Carondolet, far on the south side of the city, a similar march developed autonomously, as a crowd of iron workers closed down two zinc works, the Bessemer Steel Works, and other plants. In East St. Louis, there was a parade of women in support of the strike. By sundown, nearly all the manufacturing establishments in the city had been closed. “Business is fairly paralyzed here,” said the Daily Market Reporter.[11]

But economic activities did not cease completely; some continued under control or by permission of the strikers. The British Consul in St. Louis noted how the railroad strikers had “taken the road into their own hands, running the trains and collecting fares”; “it is to be deplored that a large portion of the general public appear to regard such conduct as a legitimate mode of warfare.”[12]

It was now the railroad managements which wanted to stop all traffic. One official stated frankly that by stopping all passenger trains, the companies would cut the strikers off from mail facilities and prevent them from sending committees from one point to another along the lines.[13] Railroad officials, according to the St. Louis Times, saw advantage in stopping passenger trains and thus “incommoding the public so as to produce a revolution in the sentiment which now seems to be in favor of the strikers.”[14] From the strikers’ point of view, running non-freights allowed them to coordinate the strike and show their social responsibility.

The strikers had apparently decided to allow the manufacture of bread, for they permitted a flour mill to remain open. When the owner of the Belcher Sugar Refinery applied to the Executive Committee for permission to operate his plant for 48 hours, lest a large quantity of sugar spoil, the Executive Committee persuaded the refinery workers to go back to work and sent a guard of 200 men to protect the refinery. Concludes one historian of the strike, “the Belcher episode revealed ... the spectacle of the owner of one of the city’s largest industrial enterprises recognizing the de facto authority of the Executive Committee.”[15]

But the strikers here and elsewhere failed to hold what they had conquered. Having shattered the authority of the status quo for a few short days, they faltered and fell back, unsure of what to do. Meanwhile, the forces of law and order — no longer cowering in the face of overwhelming mass force — began to organize.

Chicago was typical: President Hayes authorized the use of Federal regulars; citizens’ patrols were organized ward by ward, using Civil War veterans; 5,000 special police were sworn in, freeing the regular police for action; big employers organized their reliable employees into armed companies — many of which were sworn in as special police. At first the crowd successfully out-maneuvered the police in the street fighting that ensued, but after killing at least 18 people the police finally gained control of the crowd and thus broke the back of the movement.[16]

Behind them stood the Federal government. “This insurrection,” said General Hancock, the commander in charge of all Federal troops used in the strike, must be stifled “by all possible means.”[17]

Not that the Federal troops were strong and reliable. The Army was largely tied down by the rebellion of Nez Perce Indians, led by Chief Joseph. In the words of Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan, “The troubles on the Rio Grande border, the Indian outbreak on the western frontier of New Mexico, and the Indian war in the Departments of the Platte and Dakota, have kept the small and inadequate forces in this division in a constant state of activity, almost without rest, night and day.”[18] Most of the enlisted men had not been paid for months — for the Congress had refused to pass the Army Appropriations Bill so as to force the withdrawal of Reconstruction troops from the South.

Finally, the Army included many workers driven into military service by unemployment. As one union iron molder in the Army wrote, “It does not follow that a change of dress involves a change of principle.”[19] No mutinies occurred, however, as the 3,000 available Federal troops were rushed under direction of the War Department from city to city, wherever the movement seemed to grow out of control.

“The strikers,” President Hayes noted emphatically in his diary, “have been put down by force.”[20] More than 100 of them were killed in the process.


  1. Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence, p. 156. [It is likely this speaker was Albert Currlin, chairman of the St. Louis Workingmen’s Party and the head of the Executive Committee of the St. Louis Commune. — Ed.]
  2. David T. Burbank, Reign of the Rabble, The St. Louis General Strike of 1877 (N.Y., Augustus M. Kelley, 1966), p. 61.
  3. Ibid., p.43.
  4. Coopers were barrel makers, which was a large industry up through the early 20th century. — Ed.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States (N.Y., 1910), p. 77, cited in Bruce, p. 260.
  7. Burbank, p. 53.
  8. Ibid., p. 54.
  9. Ibid., p. 70.
  10. Ibid., p. 73.
  11. Daily Market Reporter, cited in Burbank, p. 78.
  12. Burbank, pp. 63-4.
  13. Ibid., p. 69.
  14. St. Louis Times, July 25, 1877, cited in Bruce, p. 260.
  15. Burbank, p. 112.
  16. Bruce, p. 252.
  17. AGO, Letters Received, 1844, Nos. 4413, 4905 (enclosure 56), cited by Bruce, p.286.
  18. Major General Philip Sheridan, Annual Report of the Military Division of the Missouri for 1877, printed copy in Philip Sheridan Mss., Library of Congress, cited in Bruce, p. 88.
  19. Iron Molders’ Journal XIII (Mar. 10, 1877), p. 275, cited in Bruce, p. 89.
  20. R.B. Hayes Mss., cited in Bruce, p. 315.


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