“Another day, another dollar” was a saying that became popular in the late 1800s. Many workers made only 10 cents per hour for a ten-hour work day. With difficult work and dangerous work to perform for little pay, tensions rose between workers and their bosses. Labor unions emerged as workers sought to speak out. Arguments with management, however, erupted into full-scale wars. In 1886, railroad titan Jay Gould faced off a union called the Knights of Labor. The result was the Great Southwest Railroad Strike, the largest strike in Texas History.
In his thirty years in business, Jay Gould had risen from poverty to becoming one of the richest men in the country. By 1886, Gould owned 15% of all railroad tracks in the country — one mile out of every seven. The Knights of Labor had arisen promising to transform the landscape for workers, calling for equal pay for all races and for women, an end to child labor, an end to convict labor, and an 8-hour work day. These ideas would not come to fruition for American workers for decades.
The union launched a strike against Gould the year before and was promised a pay raise and protection for union activities in a new contract. The company signed the agreement, but Gould had no intention of honoring it. He sat back and plotted his revenge. In the meantime, union membership surged. Nationally, numbers passed 700,000 for the Knights of Labor, including at least 30,000 in Texas.
Gould had spent years building a railroad empire and refused to answer to anyone while thousands of workers insisted they should have a voice in the company and a share in the success their work built. Gould was willing to risk everything and pay any price to defeat the union. Workers decided that they would be pushed no longer. The contest of wills soon began.
By early 1886, many of Gould’s Texas workers began seeing pay cuts instead of the raises they were promised. In February, a union leader in Marshall was fired by the railroad for attending a union meeting. On March 1, the Knights of Labor voted to strike after regional leader Martin Irons, a Scottish immigrant, called for a response. Within days, more than 200,000 rail workers in five states went on strike. Several other rail unions refused to join the strike, but strikers quickly hit the heart of Gould’s empire. The strike spread to Arkansas, Kansas, Illinois, and Missouri, stopping most transcontinental rail traffic.
Gould hired new workers to replace the strikers and strikebreakers to protect the rail yards and to confront workers. Strikebreakers were used often to physically intimidate strikers, using everything from fistfights to rifles and shotguns. Workers often responded in kind. As the strike wore on, increasing numbers of incidents were reported across the state and the entire country.
Texarkana, a city founded by the railroads, erupted into chaos as the strike began. With the railroads shut down, local businesses suffered. Groups calling themselves “law and order leagues” stormed the rail yards and seized control of them from the strikers. On April 3, violence erupted in Fort Worth. Strikers clashed with strikebreakers. Tarrant County sheriff’s deputies were called out to restore order, but one deputy was killed and two others injured in the process.
Determined to gain the upper hand, Gould decided to overpower strikers on the streets and in public opinion. He contacted one governor after another in the affected states asking for support. One after another, governors called up their state militias to confront the strikers. Texas Gov. John Ireland also agreed, sending state militia troops to Fort Worth to maintain order and Texas Rangers elsewhere to disrupt the strike. Workers sabotaged engines and rail lines. As the strike continued, workers faced an increasingly angry public that blamed them for the violence. By May, the union voted to end the strike, with no concessions from Gould at all.
Gould died in 1892, with control of his railroads intact. Irons himself was blacklisted and drifted from job to job under assumed names. He ultimately settled in Bruceville, not far from Waco, and spent years afterward speaking to unions. Both men have monuments to them — A church was renamed for Gould in New York City while a historic marker is at Irons’s grave in McLennan County.
The violence of the railroad strike, coupled with the notorious Haymarket Riot in Chicago later that year that left nearly a dozen dead in clashes between laborers and police devastated the cause of organized labor. Public opinion turned sharply against workers. The Knights of Labor was torn apart in the aftermath as accusations of who to blame raged back and forth and workers abandoned the organization. By 1890, more than 90% of its membership had left, and the organization collapsed.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org