6 Deadly Labor Disputes

Survey Associates, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Survey Associates, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Survey Associates, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Labor Day is upon us, a day to say goodbye to summer and enjoy a picnic with family and friends. But it’s also a day to remember the struggles of working people, and to recall the pioneers of the U.S. labor movement. These folks brought us the 8-hour work day, overtime pay, and collective bargaining. They also worked to eliminate paternalistic employer practices, child labor, and unsafe working conditions. The history of labor relations is littered with strikes that often cost lives. Here are just a few of those you should know about.

1. The Haymarket Affair // Chicago, Ill.

Getty Images

Who: Chicago police vs. protesting laborers
Date: May 4, 1886
Dead: 11 (seven policemen, four protesters)

Workers in Illinois were mandated an 8-hour workday in 1867. But even afterward, if you wanted a job, you were often required to sign a waiver allowing more hours. State oversight was lax, so workers had little recourse until the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for a rally on May 1, 1886. Demonstrations were held in various cities, and 80,000 workers marched in Chicago. The demonstrations continued for several days. Chicago police killed a few striking workers on May 3, prompting a labor meeting on May 4 at Haymarket Square.

The mayor of Chicago had granted permission for the rally, but Chicago police showed up and tried to disperse the crowd anyway. The rally was almost over by that time, and only a couple of hundred workers remained. Someone from the rally threw a homemade bomb filled with dynamite at the police. The police began shooting, and when the smoke cleared, seven policemen and four rally attendees lay dead. Only one policeman was found to have been killed by the bomb. Dozens on both sides were injured.

via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Eight men among the labor activists were rounded up and charged with murder. Most weren’t even at the rally, but were labor organizers. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death, except for one who was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Two of the death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment, and one man was found dead in his cell a day before the execution. The other four were hanged on November 11, 1886. In 1893, the surviving three men were pardoned by the governor. May 1 was later declared International Labor Day to commemorate the demonstrations for the 8-hour workday.

2. The Battle of Homestead // Homestead, Penn.

Piotrus via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Who: Carnegie Steel Corporation vs. Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers
Date: July 6, 1892
Dead: 12* (nine strikers, three Pinkerton agents*)

The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union members made up only about a fifth of the workers at the Homestead steel plant. When their contract was about to run out in 1892, Amalgamated tried to negotiate a raise for its workers. Carnegie Steel countered by offering a pay cut, take it or leave it. The company locked the doors of the plant on June 28. Henry Clay Frick, who oversaw operations for Carnegie Steel, had barbed wire and guards placed around the plant to keep workers out. A wall was built around it, which the workers dubbed “Fort Frick.”

The plan was to bring in non-union labor from cities far from Pittsburgh. But first, they brought in 300 men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to keep Homestead workers out. The armed agents were brought in on barges traveling up the Monongahela River on the evening of July 5. Thousands of striking workers rushed to watch, bringing guns. At midnight, workers warned the agents not to step on land, but they did, and that was when the shooting began.

B.H.L. Dabbs via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

No one knows who shot first, but the gunfire raged on and off for 14 hours. Workers not only fired their rifles, but threw dynamite and tried to set the river on fire with oil. The Pinkerton detectives finally surrendered on the afternoon of July 6. They were removed under a gauntlet of abuse, and the barges were burned after they left.

The workers celebrated their victory, but it was only one battle in a longer war. The governor sent in the Pennsylvania National Guard to keep order, and to ensure safe passage for strikebreakers brought in to reopen the plant. Strike leaders were arrested for murder and treason. They weren't convicted, but the union was broken in Homestead. Most of the striking employees were rehired within a year, at reduced wages.

3. The Pullman Strike // Chicago, Ill.

Public Domain

Who: Pullman Palace Car Company vs. The American Railway Union
Date: July 7, 1894
Dead: 30

Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago, which manufactured railway cars, went on strike on May 11, 1894, to protest a 25 percent pay cut and 16-hour workdays. The American Railway Union, which represented a minority of the Pullman workers, only got involved after the beginning of the strike. The union instructed its railway worker members to refuse service to trains that used Pullman cars. By the end of June, over 125,000 workers had walked off the job nationwide.

As more union workers joined the railroad boycott, the public became angry about the interruption in service. Once a mail train was set on fire, President Grover Cleveland became angry as well, and he sent federal troops to Chicago. The head of the ARU, Eugene V. Debs, tried to urge restraint among workers, but an injunction from Washington prohibited the union administration from communicating with the rank-and-file. On July 4, workers rampaged through rail yards, setting fires and destroying equipment in response to the federal intervention.

Library of Congress // Public Domain

On July 7, thousands of police and federal troops clashed with thousands of protesters. National Guardsmen shot into the crowds, killing around 30 people. Debs, who was arrested on July 10, tried to end the strike by offering to send workers back to their jobs under company conditions, but the railroads instead hired non-union workers. The railroads inched back to regular service, and the boycott was broken.

4. The Ludlow Massacre // Ludlow, Colo.

Survey Associates, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Who: Colorado Fuel and Iron Company vs. United Mine Workers of America
Date: April 20, 1914
Dead: Dozens (numbers vary by source)

In September 1913, 11,000 miners across southern Colorado went on strike against several mining companies, protesting low pay and unsafe conditions. The strike lasted over a year. The company responded by evicting miners and their families from company housing, which led to thousands of people living in tent colonies. The tent colony in Ludlow, near Trinidad, was particularly large. The mines in that area were operated by Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation. CF&I hired agents from the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency to harass miners. The detectives brought an armored vehicle with a mounted machine gun called the “Death Special,” from which they fired on striking miners. There were occasional deaths on both sides.

The Rockefeller family, who owned the mining operation, called on the governor of Colorado to send in the National Guard. When they arrived, striking miners thought they were there to protect them from the hired agents, but soon saw that the National Guard was there to impose CF&I control.

On April 20, 1914, the shooting escalated into an all-out battle. Baldwin Felts agents and the militia set fire to the tent colony. Some women and children fled into the wilderness, while others took shelter in cellars they had dug under the tents. In the cellar of tent #58, two women and 11 children suffocated as their tent and its wooden floored blazed above. Two other women survived to tell the tale. Several other people were shot to death.   

Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The miners, outraged at the massacre, destroyed mining operations all around the area, and traded shots with the militia until federal troops were sent in. By the time the strike was over in December 1914, the union was out of funds and somewhere between 60 and 200 people had been killed. Hundreds of miners and a few militiamen were arrested for murder, but not convicted. Even though the union lost the strike, national publicity about the working conditions of Western miners led to new federal safety regulations for mines. The site of the Ludlow Massacre, on land owned by the UMWA, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The story was remembered in a folk song.

5. The Battle of Matewan // Matewan, W.V.

Public Domain

Who: Stone Mountain Coal Corporation vs. United Mine Workers
Date: May 19, 1920
Dead: 10 (seven detectives, two miners, one mayor)

At the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation's mines in Matewan, W.V., the hours were long, the conditions unsafe, and the pay was low. The company even controlled commerce: It paid in script that could only be redeemed at the company store, and rented company houses to employees. Coal miners in West Virginia had heard about miners in Pennsylvania that had won a 27 percent raise through the United Mine Workers, so when the union came to organize West Virginia in the spring of 1920, miners signed up. Stone Mountain responded by firing union members, which meant they were to be evicted from company houses.

Matewan mayor Cabel Testerman and police chief Sid Hatfield refused to carry out evictions of the miners and their families, so Stone Mountain hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, operated by the three Felts brothers. They sent agents to evict miners throughout the spring. By May 19, tensions were high in the community, and hundreds of families were living in tents. That day, a group from the detective agency arrived by train in Matewan to evict six more miners. They worked through the afternoon, and returned to town to have dinner before the train left. Mayor Testerman confronted the agents (called “thugs” by the townspeople) about the evictions. Sid Hatfield threatened to arrest them. Albert Felts produced an arrest warrant for Hatfield. The group was surrounded by angry and armed miners. That’s when the shooting began.

Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Most accounts say that no one knows who shot first, while at least one states that Hatfield shot Albert Felts first. When the gunfire was done 10 minutes later, seven detectives—including both Albert and Lee Felts—two miners, and Mayor Testerman were dead; a number of townspeople were wounded.

State police were sent to Matewan to keep peace. Hatfield and 22 others were indicted for murder, but those whose charges weren’t dismissed were acquitted by a sympathetic jury. Hatfield married Testerman’s widow a couple of weeks after the mayor’s death, leading to some speculation that Hatfield actually shot Testerman. In 1921, the surviving Felts brother, Thomas Felts, arranged for his agents to assassinate Sid Hatfield and his deputy Edward Chambers. There were no charges leveled against the detectives.  

6. The Milwaukee Transit Strike of 1934 // Milwaukee, Wisc.

Milwaukee Sentinel via Milwaukee Notebook

Who: The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company vs. The American Federation of Labor
Date: June 26-28, 1934
Dead: 1

The employees of the Milwaukee Electric Rail & Light Company were represented by a union called the Employees’ Mutual Benefit Association. But the workers felt that this in-house union wasn’t on their side, especially when the rail engineers, bus drivers, streetcar drivers, and mechanics had to take a pay cutin 1932. The American Federation of Labor wanted to move in and unionize the utility and restore wages. Company president S.B. Way opposed the AFL, and fired eight workers for union recruiting. A strike was called on June 26, 1934, in which laborers from other unions, many unemployed, joined the strikers and blocked streetcars from moving. Twelve were injured on the first night, 16 on the second night, and dozens were arrested.

On the third night, June 28, thousands of striking workers descended on the utilities' various facilities, bent on destruction. At the Lakeside Power Plant in St. Francis, rioters broke through windows to get in and destroy the building. One group rammed a steel post through a window, and it connected with a high-voltage control panel. Eugene Domagalski, a 24-year-old strike sympathizer, was electrocuted. On the same night, a bomb ruptured a major power line.

The next day, Way met with AFL officials of three unions and a priest as a negotiator. He gave in to the unions’ demands: a small wage increase and reinstatement of union organizers who had been fired. The trains and streetcars were running again on June 30th.

There are many other labor disputes in U.S. history that turned deadly. Look for more in a future post.