After WWI, the “gentleman’s agreement,” where the government convinced labor and business to suspend strikes and lockouts, ended. Both labor and owners were in favor of this because labor wanted better wages while the railroad owners wanted more profit, much like today. So, in 1921 the Railroad Labor Board, which oversaw railroad concerns, terminated the National Agreement, the wartime wage-control measure that had been in effect since 1917, at the behest of both owners and labor.
Owners then wanted to cut wages; however, the Railroad Labor Board still held that power, which wasn’t an issue because the owners had control of the board. Before the end of 1921, the board had cut shop-craft wages nationwide by eight cents an hour, which pushed wage gains back nearly 20 years. The buying power of the railroad wages in the last half of 1921 equaled the buying power of the starvation wages of 1900, which averaged $567,00 a year.
The wage cut prompted many railroad unions to strike, but not the Boilermakers. Even Canadian rail unions didn’t support the strike as everyone was worried about surviving. But as is often the case, owners weren’t satisfied cutting wages just eight cents and convinced the Railroad Labor Board to further slash wages another seven cents to a total of $.15 an hour.
At this juncture, Boilermakers believed they were in a good position to challenge the railroad owners with a strike. They surmised that skilled replacement workers would be very hard to find in a quickly rebounding economy. Morale was high when workers laid down their tools. All of Union Pacific’s shopcraft workers in Omaha, Nebraska, walked out. Many other locations reported similar percentages. And the public supported the striking workers.
Grocers and barbers in Oregon refused to trade with replacement workers. In Texas and Arkansas, farmers organized rallies to support shopmen and gave them wagon loads of fresh produce.
But while a majority of the public supported the strike, the Railroad Labor Board actively fought against workers’ need for higher wages. The board created barriers for the striking workers because the government was in favor of employer control, not worker power. U.S. Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a rabid proponent of the open shop (see the Fall 2022 issue of the Reporter for more on this), cast strikers as mostly “communists,” just waiting to overthrow the government.
In fact, after the walkout, Daugherty dispatched 2,200 U.S. Marshalls to “keep public order,” when in reality, the troops only protected strikebreakers. During the strike, many workers were expelled from company housing and lived in tents through a long, harsh winter. The government and the railroad bosses did everything in their power to break the strike and break the will of the workers. But Boilermakers were tough and held strong.
In the next issue of The Boilermaker Reporter, read how the strike progressed and about the increasingly harsh tactics the owners and government used against striking workers.