“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 Arkansas 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 thousands in Arkansas.
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 Arkansas workers began seeing pay cuts instead of the raises they were promised. Many saw their wages fall from $1.50 to $1.25 per thirteen-hour day. In February, a union leader in Texas 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 fiery 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 Texas, 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. Gunfights between strikers and Pulaski County deputy sheriffs erupted on two known occasions in March and April. Trains that could even find crews willing to run them were immobilized by having parts removed by laborers.
Determined to gain the upper hand, Gould decided to overpower strikers on the streets and in public opinion. Newspaper editorials increasingly condemned the strike. 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.
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. At the end of 1886, a new group of laborers came forward and formed the American Federation of Labor, which eventually became the largest union in the United States. By 1890, more than 90% of the membership in the Knights of Labor had left, and the organization collapsed. The way forward is not always an easy path, and sometimes there is a price for standing up for one’s beliefs.