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Greedy owners killed union members in the 1922 Shopman’s Strike

Strike headquarters in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1922. Approximately 140 members of Local 468 joined the strike against the Pennsylvania line.

After Attorney General Harry Daugherty ordered U.S. Marshals to “keep public order” in the 1922 Shopman’s Strike, Boilermakers were cemented into seeing the strike through and not giving in to the rail owners.

Although marshals had sworn under oath to protect and defend the Constitution, they were considered more thugs than men who upheld the law. Along with private police employed by the railroad companies, they strong-armed striking union workers, who were attempting to use the strike to get the railroad bosses to treat them fairly. The railroad bosses had persuaded the Railroad Board to cut their wages—twice.

Despite the violence, which included outright murder multiple times by private police, union Boilermakers and other unions were gaining ground. Locomotive maintenance, a Boilermaker specialty, was one of the first areas to show the positive effects of the strike when the Interstate Commerce Commission reported that 60% of locomotives were “more or less” in serious condition. A full 25% of locomotives needed prompt attention.

But the railroads denied the report and said all locomotives were safe, despite what the government agency found. Even so, it was clear the strike was disrupting train service and the U.S. mail. Compounding things, food and coal supplies were dwindling with colder weather coming, and the 1922 congressional elections looming.

Just when union members could taste victory, the courts emerged to support the strikebreakers. They gave the rail bosses indiscriminate, sweeping injunctions forbidding nearly all forms of organized strike activity. Following the court decision, President Harding gave permission to seek a restraining order against the strikers.

With all the cards stacked against them, striking workers decided it was time to reach negotiated peace with the railroads. Boilermakers and other unions felt the heat—from the violence heaped upon them and from the cost of the strike.

While the strike was considered unsuccessful, it did produce long term change. The Railroad Labor Board was discredited by its actions during the strike; and in siding with rail bosses to cut pay to poverty levels, the board was dissolved and replaced by the Railway Labor Act of 1926. The Justice Department was tainted by its actions, including the violence wrought upon strikers, and with Daugherty discredited, he retired from public life.

Justice and fair play were absent during the Shopmen’s Strike. And throughout history, this has often been the case when owners are pitted against the workers who made them wealthy. But the following words, published in the February 1923 edition of The Journal, illustrate the kind of idealism that helped Boilermakers weather the strike.

“The strikers are maintaining a fair and peaceful strike. They are law-abiding citizens and the American spirit of justice and fair play will protect them in their rights.”

Unfortunately, owners don’t always play fair, as Boilermakers discovered in 1922 and 1923, and in 2022.