The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 occurred when railroad companies cut wages, leading thousands of their American workers to show their dissatisfaction with working conditions through massive protests and demonstrations.
Even though the strike included almost 100,000 workers, the industry companies and the government managed to suppress the protests, and the event did not result in any direct changes for the workers.
The late 19th century witnessed a period of significant growth in the U.S. railroad, making those companies some of the leading employers in the country. However, when workers’ salaries were cut in 1877, it caused a massive uprising called the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
Despite having employment, many people lived in poverty at the time, creating harsh conditions for workers and their families. For this reason, many slogans of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 focused on the need to increase salaries and improve working conditions. The strike began in West Virginia, but it soon spread to other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, and others.
The unrest began on July 14, 1877, after wages were cut for the third time that year. As a result, many employees refused to work and paralyzed the railroads by preventing numerous trains from moving. Since many freight trains traveled those lines, their stoppage threatened to result in essential losses for both railroad companies and the whole American industry.
Consequently, the companies and the government saw that it was necessary to take immediate measures to solve the issue. The city and state governments decided to use the National Guard and federal troops, while the companies sent private militias to reenergize the movement of trains. As a result, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 saw violent clashes between the two opposing sides.
How and when did the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 end? The rioters managed to express their opposition for several weeks. Over that period, they burnt cars, destroyed rolling stock, and created material damage valued at over 5 million dollars. The government and the railroad companies managed to neutralize the protesters, and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 did not result in any significant benefits for U.S. workers.
Among the participants of the protests, 1,000 went to jail, and 100 people were killed. As the strike ended, many politicians discussed potential reforms, but the railroad workers saw no improvements. Thus, the protest was deemed unsuccessful due to two essential aspects. First, the strike was spontaneous, and it emerged as a collective desire; however, it lacked leaders who could mobilize masses and defend their interests. Second, the rioters were opposed by organized groups of federal troops who followed orders and knew how to restore public order. However, the Great Railroad Strike was essential because it was the manifestation of social dissatisfaction, which would give rise to many other protests in the future.
Economic conditions have a significant impact on individuals and their activity. When people feel that they are deprived of their money, they become willing to take drastic measures, as seen by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Reduced wages encouraged thousands of U.S. workers to participate in riots demanding increased salaries. Even though the Great Railroad Strike did not cause an increase in wages, the event was significant for the United States because it showed that people could organize protests to defend their interests.