ST. LOUIS LABOR RETROSPECTIVE: Wild West St. Louis: street railway employees fight for rights

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One of bloodiest strikes in St. Louis history


By ZACHARY PALITZSCH
Archivist, Missouri State Historical Society

THREE UNION MEMBERS WERE KILLED and several others were wounded during the Washington Avenue riot. – Illustration from Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, District 131 Scrapbook at the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-St. Louis

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the quickest and easiest way to get around in St. Louis was the railway streetcar. Over 400,000 St. Louisans relied on this mode of transportation to get to work, home, school, or the store. That all came to a halt when the employees of the St. Louis Transit Company went on strike.

What followed was one of the bloodiest strikes in St. Louis history.

OVERWORKED, UNDERPAID
In 1899, the St. Louis Transit Company employed around 4,000 workers, and 2,100 of them had joined the newly established St. Louis division of the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees of America (AASREA).

Not appreciating their employees’ rights as workers, the St. Louis Transit Company fired any employee caught wearing a union button or openly admitting they were a part of the union. On top of this, many employees were working 12-hour workdays for a mere pittance of 12-16 cents per hour.

Outraged by their mistreatment, leaders of St. Louis AASREA organized a meeting to discuss negotiating for more rights as workers.

On March 7, 1900, 1,700 streetcar employees attended a mass meeting held at Harmonie Hall to develop a set of resolutions to present to the St. Louis Transit Company. Their demands were as follows:

  • Employees that were fired for being union members must be rehired.
  • Wages needed to be raised to 25 cents per hour for motormen, conductors, and fire fighters; 20 cents per hour for motor inspectors and greasers; and 17.5 cents per hour for car-washers and shedmen.
  • Workdays must be no longer than 10 hours.
  • Those asked to work overtime must be compensated accordingly.
  • The St. Louis Transit Company must recognize and deal with the union in the future.

The Transit Company was given an ultimatum: accept the union’s demands within 24 hours, or the workers would go on strike.

OK, BUT…
The Transit Company requested more time to deliberate, to which the union agreed. After three days of conferring, the Transit Company agreed to the union’s demands, but the company tried to wiggle out of the agreement whenever possible, even completely ignoring some of the clauses.

DIED FIGHTING FOR THEIR RIGHTS: Portraits of those killed in the June 10, 1990 shooting. – Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, Division 131 Scrapbook at the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-St. Louis

Additionally, the Transit Company tried to make work conditions for the union members as uncomfortable as possible, firing workers for the most trifling charges or “dissatisfactory” work.

This went on for two months. Fed up with the Transit Company’s further mistreatment, St. Louis AASREA sent out a new set of demands similar to the ones from before. This time, the Transit Company outright denied the demands.

After receiving the news, the union members gathered at an emergency meeting on May 8, 1900, just after midnight. It was unanimously decided that the employees were going to walk out.

CITY DESCENDS INTO CHAOS
For several days following the meeting on May 8, of the 896 streetcars running through St. Louis, not a single one ran on the transit system.

Immense crowds of sympathizers gathered throughout the city, blocking right-of-way areas so streetcars couldn’t move. Non-striking workers were pulled from the cars, bricks and stones were thrown at the cars, and debris was scattered along the railways.

The strike affected nearly 400,000 people, who were forced to walk or get rides on furniture vans, ice wagons, horse-drawn carts, and the occasional automobile.

POSSE TO SUPPRESS STRIKERS
In an effort to keep the streetcars moving, and keep protestors from damaging the streetcars, the St. Louis Police Board brought officers from nearby towns to escort them. Additionally, the Police Board swore in a posse comitatus of 2,500 citizens to suppress union strikers.

Following this event, several newspaper reporters suspected that the police chief was being paid by the Transit Company to pressure strikers to relent. The posse members were armed and then posted around transit stations and company properties to divert protesters from vandalizing or destroying property.

What resulted was a growing feud between strikers and the posse.

THE STRUGGLE GETS WORSE
On May 29, armed posse members loaded into a streetcar that ran past a building where striking employees were gathered. The men in the streetcar fired into the building, injuring bystanders and strikers alike.

HATE MAIL: A letter to St. Louis AASREA union leader Mack Missick. “I see by the papers that 3 or 4 strikers got shot. Now you ought to have been one of them. I think if President of the union, you, and about 4 other leaders were shot – the strike would end. I hope you will get it next.” – Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, Division 131 Scrapbook at the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center-St. Louis

Twelve days later, on June 10, along Washington Avenue, the posse opened fire at a group of strikers returning from a picnic. A riot ensued, causing police deputies to rush to the scene, opening fire on the crowd. Three men were killed, several others wounded, and about 20 strikers were placed under arrest.

One non-striking Transit Company employee was arrested for concealing weapons and having dynamite in his possession. Other non-striking employees were alleged to have blown up a supposed union member’s home with dynamite and tried to frame union members for dynamiting street cars.

A NEW AGREEMENT
The strike continued in this fashion for nearly eight weeks. From the time between May 8, when the strike started, to July 2, when the Transit Company and AASREA signed a new agreement, 14 people were killed and nearly 200 injured.

The new agreement’s provisions were mostly unchanged from the original March 10 agreement. The agreement was signed by both the president of the Transit Company, Edwards Whitaker, and the chairman of AASREA’s Grievance Committee, T. B. Edwards. St. Louis finally returned to its usual activity.

Even after everything that had happened, the Transit Company still did not uphold its end of the bargain. So the workers went on strike again.

DISAPPOINTING ENDING
The strike would last for another several months with far less bloodshed.

Finally, on September 14, 1900, the strike ended with a court settlement between the union and the Transit Company, ultimately resulting in little progress gained for the exhausted strikers.

(The information in this article can be found in the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, Division 131 Scrapbook (S0664). Contact archivists AJ Medlock, Zack Palitzsch, or Erin Purdy at stlouis@shsmo.org for more information, or to schedule an appointment to freely view one of the many Labor collections available to researchers. This ongoing series is being written by the archivists at the State Historical Society of Missouri St. Louis Research Center. Founded in 1898, the State Historical Society of Missouri seeks to preserve and promote the study of Missouri’s history, including the history of the Labor Movement within the state.)

 


 

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