The Railway War

“It is idle to suppose that organized labor has been crushed, or that it will permanently submit to defeat. It is only a question of time when another outbreak will occur ... accompanied with violence, bloodshed, and fire.”

Library of Congress

Seventeen years ago, in July, 1877, a strike of unprecedented intensity occurred on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which spread thence to the trunk lines and west to the Mississippi River. It was accompanied, as all great strikes are in this country, with rioting and the usual exhibitions of lawlessness. After millions of property had been destroyed and some hundreds of lives lost, it was put down by the armed forces of the state and national governments. It was originally a contest about wages. At that time public opinion and law had not progressed so far as they have since done in the direction of asserting and exercising the right of the government to supervise and control the railway companies, either in their relations with the traveling and shipping public or with their employees.

The great strike now apparently closing in a triumph for the General Managers Association and humiliation and defeat for the American Railway Union finds a very different state of judicial and popular opinion regarding the nature and function of a railway, and a very different condition of the state and federal statute books as to the right and duty of the government to regulate and control the public traveled roads. How far the former desperate contest may have operated in the subsequent evolution of legislation and public opinion, it is hard to say, but surely such a glimpse of the yawning gulf of anarchy suddenly opening in the very midst of the commonwealth must have awakened the apathetic, taught wisdom to the thoughtful, and suggested moderation to the headstrong. At all events, courts and legislatures have been busy ever since in devising ways and means to curb the arbitrary and irresponsible exercise of corporate power, and the general mind has gradually drifted to the position that there is hardly anything the government may not with propriety do, if necessary, to check the concentration of power in private hands. A vast network of laws and tribunals has been constructed to prevent unjust discrimination in rates, but little has been done to insure just treatment of employees. On this point, though public opinion recognizes the fitness of equally stringent legislation, in actual practice there is no remedy for wage in justice but a strike. An act of Congress was passed in 1888, providing for the voluntary appointment, by the contestants, of a board of arbitrators to adjust differences between interstate railroad companies and their employees. All expenses were to be paid by the United States, and the decision of the board was to be made matter of record. The law has no compulsive power, and has slumbered peacefully on the statute book ever since. The same act also empowers the President to appoint a commission to investigate and report as to the causes and conditions of the controversy and the best means of adjusting it. It is such a commission whose labors, now that the strike is over, are just commencing.

The present strike should be viewed in the light of recent occurrences which have had their effect in determining its form and the atmosphere in which it has been fought. In December, 1893, the receivers of the Northern Pacific Railway, having aroused the dissatisfaction of their employees by successive cuts in wages, and fearing a general strike, applied to the United States court for an order enjoining such a demonstration. Without any hesitation, Judge Jenkins issued an order in the nature of a military proclamation, directed to the men in the various grades of the service, and “all persons generally,” enjoining them from interfering with the property in the hands of the receivers, or with men in their employ, and from combining and conspiring to quit the service of the receivers, either with or without notice, “with the object and intent of crippling the property in their custody or embarrassing the operation of said railroad,” etc. The promulgation of this sweeping prohibition, backed up by the United States army, prevented the threatened strike, but it put the court on record as claiming and actually exercising the power to force men to continue at work against their will, and at the same time declaring that any railroad strike is an unlawful conspiracy and every striker a criminal. Ominous growls of discontent were heard everywhere, but the fact that such an extraordinary utterance proceeded from a federal court and was supported by boundless power averted open disorder. Then came the attempt of the receivers of the Union Pacific to cut down wages, and the answer of Judge Caldwell, of the United States court, in substance, that fair wages must be paid, whether interest on bonds or dividends on stock be paid or not. His decision aroused the wildest enthusiasm among the wage-earning classes. Here a strike was averted by a policy exactly opposite to that pursued by Judge Jenkins.

Next followed the strike on the Great Northern Railway, in which the American Railway Union and its young leader, Mr. Debs, came conspicuously to the front. It was an organization based apparently on the principle that a strike must originate in the local unions, and become general only when a majority of the members of local unions had voted for it. As a matter of fact, the strike on this railway so completely embraced every branch of the service, and enlisted the sympathies of the communities which were the chief sufferers by the cessation of traffic, that President Hill speedily saw the hopelessness of his position and resorted to the device of an arbitration, in which he consented beforehand to an award granting substantially everything the strikers demanded. The conflict ended in mutual congratulations; railway managers, newspapers, business men, and the community in general, joining in a chorus of admiration for the intelligence, moderation, and magnanimity of Mr. Debs. The result was a complete victory for the strikers, and met the approval of the people of the entire Northwest.

Having thus won his spurs, and no doubt believing all the fine things that were said about him, Mr. Debs turned to see what other wrongs needed to be redressed. The Pullman strike offered an opportunity for a contest vastly larger than the former, which only tied up the transportation of some seven States and 4500 miles of railway. It is not necessary to consider here whether the universal boycott then inaugurated was justified by the facts, or not. The press is practically unanimous in the opinion that it was both atrocious and insane. Yet even to-day, when the echoes of the great battle are dying away on the horizon, thousands of working-people in towns remote from the original storm centre are still ardently declaring that the strike is on, and that they will starve rather than resume work until justice is done at Pullman. The militia and the regular army are gradually withdrawing; the newspapers, which, according to Chairman Egan of the General Managers’ Association, got their information from the railway bureau, have for many days declared that the strike is wholly collapsed, though in twenty places the police are still busy with mobs of rioters. The leading officers of the American Railway Union are in jail, charged with contempt of court in violating judicial proclamations, and under indictment for criminal conspiracy. If the newspapers are to be depended upon, the strike is wearing itself out, and before long there will be nothing left of it but the ruins of burned cars and bridges, a vast army of hungry men, women, and children, whose wild cry has been drowned by the rattle of guns, and underneath all, a deep and inextinguishable sense of wrong unredressed. Is it not a strange thing that in the midst of general distress, when the hand of the well-to-do doles out charity by the drop, a great army of workingmen, whose only capital is their hands, should voluntarily fling down their tools and face a future full of terror, not in their own quarrel, but in an effort to redress what they conceive to be the wrongs of other toilers, whom they have never seen? For it must be remembered that this is a “sympathetic” strike. Here and there, discontent with local conditions has precipitated or aggravated the issue; but, in general, the strike was a technical boycott, intended simply to bring such enormous pressure to bear upon the Pullman company as should compel it to submit the matters in dispute to arbitration.

Prosperous people contribute more or less liberally to charity; peradventure for a starving man, some would even forego luxuries; but how commonly do we see the fairly well off throwing up their comfortable salaries, or selling all their goods to feed the poor? Yet with a terrible winter behind them, and a bitter winter and a black list before them, hundreds of local bodies of the American Railway Union have, with astounding unanimity and thrilling enthusiasm, joined this hopeless cause. What a pity that this mighty wave of heroism should beat itself out uselessly against the rocks! It reminds one of the Crusades, when the deep universal passion of man rose up, and threw itself with divine abandon into an enterprise foredoomed to failure. The very Quixotism of the effort is its pathos: for the thing was impossible from the start. The Pullman company was intrenched behind the railroads, the railroads behind the courts, the courts behind the army; and this whole mighty combination could be struck at only through the body of the public.

The strike is over, and there remains now little to do but take account of losses, punish the men who have been guilty of criminal acts, and make it plain to the working-classes that the laws of the nation must be enforced, whether they be just or unjust. Yet the commotion must not subside without the taking of anxious thought to find out the cause and determine, if possible, the remedy. Some things already seem plain. The conviction has forced itself on the minds of a great multitude of the poorer classes that this is a conflict between the wage-earners, on the one side, and the corporations, backed by the wealth, influence, and respectability of the country, on the other. A knife can be distinctly seen severing this host from that. This is deplorable, but it is not the worst. The American Railway Union is defeated, but the cause which called these elemental forces from the vasty deep remains as full of the possibilities of terror as ever. Given a pretext which shall commend itself to the sober judgment, as well as to the passionate sympathy, of these thousands, a leader wise and far-seeing, an organization perfected by discipline; these on the one side, and on the other, a national railroad organization concentrated in a dozen hands, and welded together with a pooling system sanctioned and enforced by law, and we have potentialities of industrial war to make us shudder. We have now nearly a million railway employees; these will increase in number; and their employers will have taught them the science of organization. When the next great contest comes, as come it must, will the government, as now, find itself so bound up and blended with the railway interests that it must array itself against this embattled host of workers?

As for the railways, they are triumphant; flushed with victory, they are already preparing a gigantic black list. The newspapers state in their telegraphic columns that the Southern Pacific officials announce their willingness to take back such of their employees as they may require, who have not during the strike willfully destroyed the railroad property or forcibly prevented its employees from performing their regular duties; that an affidavit has been prepared by the company, to be signed by men desiring reinstatement, declaring that the affiant has resigned from the American Railway Union, and will not again join any union or brotherhood for the term of five years, and will not become a member of any labor organization during the time he is employed by that company. The General Managers’ Association, composed of a score or more of railroads, adjourns, considering the present emergency ended, but in readiness to resume hostilities again at an hour’s notice. Everything indicates a stern resolve to exterminate organized labor, to bring the individual man face to face with the combined power of the victorious companies, and to rely on the general government to support them with its army, if the enforcement of their policy should result in future disorder.

That it will result in disorder is certain. It is idle to suppose that organized labor has been crushed, or that it will permanently submit to defeat. It is only a question of time when another outbreak will occur on a larger scale, under more perfect organization, and with a more sullen and determined spirit. And it will be accompanied with violence, bloodshed, and fire. To make a strike effectual, it is necessary to prevent the company from filling the places of the strikers; “persuasion” will be used on men who offer to work, and there are no limits to “persuasion.” It is not in human flesh and blood that men should endure taunts and threats, the hatred and ostracism of their fellows, in the service of a corporation. Taunts lead to blows; the taste of violence is maddening, like the taste of blood; a riot flames up and runs before the gale of passion. A peaceable strike on a railway is a thing of fancy. A strike is nothing but war; its object and intent is to stop travel, cripple the railroad in the performance of its functions, and damage the corporation as much as possible. A gentle strike, in which the men gave the company abundant notice to enable it to fill the vacant places, and then retired quietly to their homes to wait until the consciences of the officials should bring them to repentance, has not occurred as yet, and never will. The leaders may publicly advise their followers to avoid violence, but they always expect to paralyze traffic at all hazards; they are determined that “not a wheel shall move.” The history of railroad strikes has been a record of violence, intimidation, incendiarism, train-wrecking, murder. No man can precipitate such a strike without both expecting and counting on these inseparable concomitants. They are as much a part of such strikes, at least when extensive and bitterly contested, as wounds and death are a part of war. But independently of the torch and club, as the laws now stand, a strike on a railroad carrying the mails or engaged in interstate commerce is a criminal conspiracy, and forbidden as such by law.

This proposition is not, perhaps, at present perfectly apprehended by the public, but it is sufficiently well established by judicial decision. The courts will doubtless have occasion to declare it more than once before the crop of prosecutions now sown is fully gathered. A combination of men by concerted action, whose object and intent is to prevent the regular and orderly course of interstate commerce, or whose natural and necessary result is to interrupt interstate commerce, or the passage of the mails, is a conspiracy condemned by the law, whether the means taken to enforce it are in themselves criminal or not. It may seem an alarming doctrine to the friends of labor, that a strike on a railway engaged in interstate commerce is in its very nature criminal, but such is the logical tendency of the courts, and such has already been declared the law by at least three federal judges. Judicial opinion has been steadily advancing to this position for at least a hundred years, and has reached it by applying the familiar principles of law to the changed conditions. Whatever may be the law with regard to strikes designed to coerce merely private employers, the functions of a railway are now regarded as so far public, and even governmental, the general welfare is so vitally concerned in their free and unrestricted operation, that the public can no longer tolerate their being made the sport and prey of private quarrels, no matter what the consequences may be to individuals. It is probably the popular opinion that the right to organize a strike upon a railway is one which cannot be denied in a free country, so long as the men confine themselves to purely peaceable methods, and that to deny it means to force men to work against their will. Perhaps this is true in a controversy between private employers and their employees, but it is not true in the case of public or quasi-public corporations and their servants. Such a corporation acts through its officers, agents, and employees, and these, on accepting its service, assume a duty to the public which they cannot lay down whenever it suits them to do so; much less may they enter into a conspiracy whose immediate object is to paralyze the public arm and inflict injury upon the whole people, in order to force a satisfactory adjustment of wages. The act of combination becomes criminal, not on account of the methods used, but of the object in view.

Here, then, lies the difficulty. The truth is, the present trouble, which grows more ominous and alarming the more closely it is studied, has grown up from seeds implanted in the heart of the existing railway system. Two sets of rights have come into existence, — the rights of the employer and the rights of the employee. The ownership of property carries with it the right to control it, limited, of course, in certain important respects, and the beneficial enjoyment implies the right to call for the whole power of the government, if needed, for its protection. It is the plain duty of the government, under existing laws, to guarantee the private owners of the public highways in the unobstructed exercise of their functions, and to put down by force every unlawful combination designed to cripple or suspend them. The government is, therefore, committed to the railroads. It is bound to protect them even from the consequences of arbitrary and unjust treatment of their employees, and if hot-headed and enthusiastic leaders persuade the men to revolt, the government must quell the mutiny with bayonets.

In this state of things some will declare, with Portia, as their judgment of a hard case, —

Then must the Jew be merciful.

And some will naturally expect to hear the representatives of the railroads, conscious of power and of the technical impregnability of their position, answer, —

On what compulsion must I?

On the other hand, there are rights of persons as well as of property. More sacred than all human law is a man’s dominion over his own labor. The right of men working for private employers to quit, either singly or in combination, cannot be denied, no matter what the letter of the law may be. Judge Rick’s position, that the railway employee must finish the immediate service which he has begun, seems correct, and is as far as the freedom of toil will permit the courts to go in specifically enforcing the contract of labor. One thing is certain: to forbid the remedy of a strike, without guaranteeing justice to labor and enforcing it, not simply by the pressure of public opinion, but by the power of the nation, is to invite social revolution. It is a problem of tremendous magnitude, and will not decide itself in a way pleasant to contemplate by the operation of the principle of laissez-faire; nor will the mass of mankind listen to technical reasoning, nor to an appeal to the supposed sacredness of vested interests. If there are any laws that stand in the way of a just and permanent solution of the problem, they must be abolished. The right to use the only effective weapon in a contest between workingmen and their private employers is at present admitted by men generally as based on the simplest principles of justice, and they are apt to regard with hostility any law or government which denies it, even when applied to the railroads. This explains the patience with which communities have submitted to the loss and inconvenience resulting from railway strikes hitherto. They are believed to be no worse in principle than the fierce wars which the companies wage upon each other, with the avowed purpose to cripple and destroy, the combined losses to be ultimately saddled chiefly upon that part of the public which is not in a position to defend itself.

The pending prosecutions against Mr. Debs and his associates show how promptly allied corporate interests can reach the ear of power and set in motion the ponderous machinery of justice. These prosecutions are begun under what are known as the Anti-Trust Law and the Interstate Commerce Law. These statutes were both framed expressly to curb the aggressions of trusts and corporations, but as against these aggregations of capital, the former has proved itself harmless, and as to the latter, the courts have, by repeated decisions, stripped it of much of its importance, and the railroads have come to ignore some of its most characteristic features. Now, however, it is found that their language is capable of a construction never thought of by the Congress which enacted them, under which the government may suppress the first outbreak of a combination of working-men. Trusts flourish in rich luxuriance in this country, as everybody but the department of justice knows, but no special counsel is designated by the Attorney-General to see that they are suppressed. Certainly it is unfortunate that so many things should concur to stamp indelibly on the minds of the toiling millions the idea that all governments alike, republican as well as monarchical, are for the rich, and are all supported by mere force. The believers in a firm and just enforcement of the laws are in much the same dilemma as that which confronted Daniel Webster and those who sided with him, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. If Debs and his associates are technically guilty, the law must be enforced, even if, in the crushing of these mistaken champions of labor, the law itself meets ultimate condemnation. For the railway strike problem, as it now exists, is the problem of the continued existence of a monopoly whose roots are planted in every vein and artery of the national life.

Can the solution be reached through arbitration? It would be a truly edifying spectacle, if controversies involving large masses of men and vast aggregations of capital might be submitted to a voluntary tribunal composed of wise men, and their decision accepted as final. But suppose either side will not agree to submit its case, insisting, as Mr. Pullman did, and as the railroads now do, that there is nothing to arbitrate; or will not bow to the wisdom and authority of the decision? Shall the engineer be made to seize the throttle, or the switchman the lever, against his will? Are the Goulds and Vanderbilts so sensitive to public opinion as to yield before the mere dictum of a board of arbitration which has no power of compulsion? Believing, as they do, that the chief lesson of the present strike is that successful arbitration simply renders labor organizations insatiable and incites them to intolerable extravagance, railroad managers will regard a demand for arbitration merely as a summons to surrender. Will the men trust a judge who is satisfactory to the General Managers’ Association, under the direction it may be of an imperious leader, practically a dictator? Any board of arbitration, to be effective, would have to be clothed with power; then it would be a court, and no better qualified to solve the anxious questions of the time than any other court.

What available resource is at hand? There are two. Any adjustment which proposes to deny the men the remedy of a strike must provide substantial guarantees for a prompt and just settlement of controversies about wages. Is it not possible to reconstruct the Interstate Commerce Commission, making it a court with ample powers instead of a mere administrative tribunal, whose findings have none of the authority of a judgment; and to amend the law so as broadly to cover the relations between the railways and their employees, and providing that any railroad refusing to conform to the law should be placed in the hands of receivers? Nearly one fourth of the railway mileage of the country is at present administered by the courts through receivers, and, it must be admitted, to the general satisfaction of all parties. The remedy proposed is, therefore, but an extension of existing machinery. If the power of the government could be invoked to compel fair treatment of employees, there would be no excuse for striking, and no injustice in executing existing laws which pronounce a strike a criminal conspiracy.

Notwithstanding the fact that in most other countries the railroads are either owned and operated by the government, or constructed under laws providing for ultimate government assumption, our own people are as yet far from ready to face the tremendous risks involved in such a system here. There is, however, no reason why the experiment should not be tried on a scale large enough adequately to test it, and yet not too great to be easily relinquished in case of failure. One would hardly dare propose any scheme as offering a certain and infallible cure for evils so deep seated. This country is broad enough for the intelligent application of more than one remedy. Just at the present moment, the affairs of the Pacific railways are in such a condition that if the government were a private creditor, it would foreclose its mortgage, acting in accordance with ordinary business principles. There is really no prospect that the present companies can ever pay the interest on their indebtedness, to say nothing of principal. The government practically built the roads and made a present of them to the stockholders, together with a truly imperial land grant; the stock-holders have enjoyed the bounty of the people for a generation, almost without cost to themselves. There certainly could be no injustice in insisting on the terms of the contract. But the deep repugnance which our public men seem to feel towards any strong treatment of a railroad company is likely to prevent this course. The bill now before Congress proposes to extend the debt for another fifty years, and a grand opportunity will thus be let slip for trying, under the most favorable circumstances, an experiment whose possibilities no man can measure. It is not altogether improbable that the mere fact of such a trial, undertaken in good faith and with a real desire to see it succeed, might postpone for years the recurrence of such convulsions as those which have just now seemed to threaten the peace, and even the perpetuity of our institutions.

Many timid minds will shrink from either of these alternatives, under the belief that they savor of socialism. It would be well, however, for such to consider whether, in default of some prompt and vigorous exercise of the power of the government to afford radical and effective cure for existing evils, there may not grow up in the swift-coming time a problem involving the very existence of society itself.