During World War 1, railroad strikes were off the table. Why?
US President Woodrow Wilson nationalized the American railroad system by executive order as of December 28, 1917 in support of the war effort based on the Army Appropriations Act of 1916. He had tried to force the many US railroads to streamline their rates and operations but they did not get their act together fast enough. So, the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) was established.
Railroad workers across the northeast had agreed to several terms for the duration of the war to show their support for the war effort:
- No strikes or slow downs;
- Wage freeze; and
- 8-hour work day.
Railroad owners had been fighting against the 8-hour work day for some time while railroad unions has been talking about strikes since at least 1916 to get a wage increase. This proclamation by the President shut down both sides.
So, great, everybody lived happily ever after, right? Not really.
Control of the Railroads
The federal government didn’t give control back to the company owners until March 1, 1920 with passage of the Transportation Act of 1920 (also called the Esch-Cummins Act). The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) set minimum shipping rates, oversaw railroad financial operations, and regulated any railroad company acquisitions or mergers during that time. All without owner participation. The law also established the Railroad Labor Board (RLB) to regulate wages and labor disputes in the future.
The railroad company owners, however, effectively controlled the RLB. The RLB cut shop wages nationwide in 1921 by 8-cents-per-hour. This action basically rolled back wage increased for almost 20 years while the cost of living had increased dramatically during the war. The railroad strike spread across the country but some unions were afraid they couldn’t survive so they held off.
The owners convinced the RLB to cut wages another 7-cents-per-hour in 1922 for an effective cut of $0.15 per hour. All of Union Pacific’s shop workers went on strike and the situation spread across the country. U.S. Marshals were dispatched to “keep public order” but they only protected the strike breakers.
Local grocers, barbers, and other businesses refused to sell to replacement workers. My own great-grandparents owned a grocery that gave credit to the railroad strikers. It helped that great-grandpa James Daly (1850-1927) and two sons – Elmo and Eugene – also worked for the railroad. Their son James was a grocer while son Leo and daughter Mary were clerks.
Even while a majority of the public supported the workers over the railroad owners who were seen to have broken a promise the U.S. Attorney General accused the strikers of being “communists” waiting to overthrow the government as part of the First Red Scare.
The strikes generally began on July 1, 1922 and were broken by September 1. The federal and state governments broke the railroad strikes using the National Guard, private companies, and local sheriffs. When the “big 4” unions – the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, the Order of Railway
Conductors, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen – blinked, the railroad strikes were doomed.
Grocers, barbers, and other local businesses who supported the strikers also lost. Many went out of business when they could not collect the credit they had given to striking workers. The Daly Grocery in Sayre, Pennsylvania was one of these businesses that had to close.
The railroad owners even got the RLB to declare any strikers had forfeited arbitration rights under any contracts guaranteed under the transportation Act of 1920. It was called the “outlaw resolution“. Workers were also stripped of their seniority, which controlled promotion and helped avoid layoffs.
Overtime, the 8-hour-day eventually took hold but wages never really recovered. My own grandfather “lived one step ahead of the landlord”. They moved house every few months or so when they got behind. He was a skilled machinist and still struggled to feed his family years later.