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.