The great railroad strike, 1877

Haymarket Square riot was an

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Haymarket Square riot was an outbreak of violence in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Demands for an eight-hour working day became increasingly widespread among American laborers in the 1880s. A demonstration, largely staged by a small group of anarchists, caused a crowd of some 1,500 people to gather at Haymarket Square. When policemen attempted to disperse the meeting, a bomb exploded and the police opened fire on the crowd. Seven policemen and four other persons were killed, and more than 100 persons were wounded.

Public indignation rose rapidly, and punishment was demanded. Eight anarchist leaders were tried, but no evidence was produced that they had made or thrown the bomb. They were, however, convicted of inciting violence, although no evidence was presented that they knew the bomber, who was never discovered. Four were hanged, one committed suicide, and the remaining three—after having served in prison for seven years—were pardoned (1893) … on the ground that the trial had been patently unjust.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.



Henry Clay Frick (President of Carnegie Steel Company)… offered the employees a pay cut and later said that he would not negotiate with the union.  Instead he would negotiate with individual employees. The employees refused to negotiate without the union and Frick responded by surrounding the steel mill property with a solid board fence with rifle ports and topped with barbed wire. The steel mill compound soon became known as "Fort Frick". Frick began to shutdown operations on June 28, 1892. Although deputy sheriffs were sworn in to guard the property, they were ordered out of town by the workers. Because the employees felt that they had a right to work, they began guarding the steel mill.

Frick then called the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency of New York and requested 300 strikebreakers to protect the company property and equipment3. However, the workers were alerted by employees stationed at the river and quickly rushed to prevent the Pinkertons from coming ashore. The workers exchanged gunfire with the Pinkertons, rolled freight train cars on fire at the barges of Pinkertons, tossed dynamite, and pumped oil onto the Monongahela River.  For about 14 hours, the workers tried to set fire to the river 4.
The death toll rose as the fight wore on, and the Pinkertons eventually gave up. The Pinkertons were forced to run through a gauntlet formed by the workers and their families. Three Pinkertons and seven employees were killed during the fight. Six days later 8,500 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were ordered into Homestead under the orders of Governor Robert E. Patterson. A very small percentage of employees returned to work after the union called off the strike, but by this time most of the employees and all of the strike leaders had been black-listed.


During depression [that began in 1893], Pullman sought to preserve profits by lowering labor costs. When the firm slashed its work force from 5,500 to 3,300 and cut wages by an average of 25 percent, the Pullman workers struck. The American Railway Union (ARU), led by Eugene Debs, was trying to organize rail workers all across the country. The Pullman workers joined the ARU, and Debs became the leader of the Pullman strike…

The ARU enjoyed wide influence among the workers who operated trains.  To bring pressure on Pullman, the union asked trainmen to refuse to run trains on which Pullman sleeping cars were attached. The union told the railroads that their trains could operate without the Pullman cars, but the railroads insisted that they had contracts with the Pullman Company requiring them to haul the sleeping cars. The result was an impasse, with railroad workers in and around Chicago refusing to operate passenger trains.  The conflict was deep and bitter, and it seriously disrupted American railroad service.

Many Americans were appalled at the class conflict that the strike (and others like it) represented.  The events of the Pullman strike led to a deepening awareness that there was a "labor problem" in America, a "labor question" in American politics.


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