Labor Conflicts From 1877 to 1894

At the end of the nineteenth century, many American industries experienced a crisis. To cope with it, the businessmen chose to pay their workers less. As a result, the workers resorted to strikes in attempts to promote fair wages demands. This essay covers three significant strikes that took place between 1877 and 1894. These include the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which spread across the country, the sugar cane labor strike of 1887 marked by racism and unprecedented violence, and the successful Cripple Creek miners’ strike of 1894.

The great Railroad Strike of 1877 occurred when the railroad companies began to cut wages. Since most American workers were in the railroad sector, many people suffered the consequences of decreased wages. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad launched the cut, the workers responded by refusing to run trains until they canceled the policy. While approximately 600 trains stood in Martinsburg, Virginia, the strike was spreading to other areas. After the railroad workers launched a strike in Pittsburgh, 45 people died in the confrontation with the armed forces. Consequently, the Pittsburgh railroad workers, ironworkers, steelworkers, and miners organized a general strike. The Great Railroad Strike also reached Newark, Ohio, Albany and Buffalo, New York, Cumberland and Baltimore, Maryland, Chicago, and other towns, and involved around 100 000 workers. However, the people did not achieve their goals since the employers had the government’s support.

Ten years later, a sugar cane labor strike resulted in the Thibodaux massacre. At that time, Southern African Americans partook in sharecropping did not receive their wages in cash, and their living conditions were similar to the ones during slavery. Therefore, the workers demanded cash wages of at least a dollar per day. To achieve that, they attempted to unionize, launched the strike, and initiated bargaining with the employers, but the planters resorted to strike-breaking. Sugar cane workers out of a job found refuge in Thibodaux. In response, local authorities declared martial law and encouraged white guards to barricade the town. After that, white men began targeting, killing, and lynching black people in Thibodaux, regardless of their participation in the strike. Nearly 60 people died, and the authorities celebrated the victory. African American workers returned to the plantations and did not unionize in the South for almost a century.

One more remarkable strike transpired in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1894. The local miners protested prolonging the shifts from 8 to 10 hours without additional pay. Small businesses complied with the demands, but the large ones attempted to break the strike with the armed sheriff’s deputies’ assistance. Thus, the governor elected by the working people sent the state militia to ensure the workers’ safety. Consequently, the Western Federation of Miners engaged agreed to keep the shifts to 8 hours. It was the first time the armed forces and the governor supported the strikers and helped the workers win.

Overall, the labor conflicts between the workers and the business owners in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s were violent. They were often unsuccessful for workers since the employers had extensive financial resources, political and military support, and opportunities to hire strike-breakers. However, when a governor protected the strikers in 1894, the business owners finally satisfied their demands. Tragically, the other two strikes described in this essay resulted in numerous deaths without any desired achievements.


Montgomery, D. (1980). Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles (Revised ed.). Cambridge University Press.

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