How trolley cars electrified the labor movement
By DEBORAH A. MILES
The fight against privatization of public services changes from decade to decade. Even in the days when trolley cars were the preferred mode of transportation, labor activists and thousands of working-class people united to stop private, wealthy companies that abused its workers.
Trolley cars started running on electricity around 1890, and the results were speedier transit and greater profits. It was around this time America’s working class began to form rudimentary labor unions, and many trolley men were represented by the Knights of Labor (KOL).
Several issues arose with trolley companies, such as the Brooklyn City Railroad Company (BCRC). Its stockholders organized the Long Island Traction Company in Virginia, and proceeded to buy the BHRC. Since the company was not incorporated in New York, it was not subject to the various regulations and taxes associated with running a NY railroad.
Workers asked for better wages, and argued that the new cars required greater concentration to operate. They also wanted a share of the hefty profits. They complained the companies instructed conductors to ignore the 10 mile-per-hour speed limit which endangered motormen and pedestrians. Their main sticking point was the 10-hour work day.
KOL, once a premier trade union, lost its strength and members by weak leadership and mismanagement. Much of its decline has been attributed to the famous Haymarket affair in Chicago, where non-union anarchists set off bombs during a labor strike organized by the KOL. Because of the Haymarket incident, the KOL found it nearly impossible to negotiate between the trolley workers and the railroad companies.
In January 1895, KOL dropped its demands for better wages, but stood firm on the 10-hour work day. It voted to endorse a city-wide strike with 5,000 workers. That paralyzed Brooklyn’s trolley system. The strike which started peacefully escalated into a violent event. Managers from the trolley companies hired workers from neighboring states to keep the system running on schedule. The striking workers did everything they could to stop the trolleys, including cutting trolley cables, surrounding the cars, and assaulting the drivers.
The police were no match for the mobs in the streets, and on the sixth day of the strike, the mayor called the National Guard to restore order and prevent further violence. The militia eventually stopped the strikers, and trolley service resumed. Many newspaper reports said the National Guard stoked the violence that gripped the city. Headlines not only focused on the rights of the strikers, but the death of an innocent bystander. A young man named Thomas Carney was patching a roof, looked down to see the commotion and was fatally wounded by a militiaman.
As in Brooklyn, strikes were occurring across the nation such as the St. Louis Streetcar Strike of 1900. It was a labor action, and resulted in civil disruption against the St. Louis Transit Company by 3,000 workers represented by the Amalgamated Street Railway Employees of America.
Strikers also disrupted the service, but St. Louis had a significant union membership, and many working-class citizens shut down the lines in their neighborhoods in solidarity.
In 1910, a similar situation occurred in Philadelphia when organized labor associations affiliated with the Central Labor Union went on strike against the Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT) Company. They demanded an hourly wage of 25 cents for conductors, the right to buy their uniforms on the open market, and a 9 or 10-hour work day.
PRT refused to negotiate, brought in strike breakers who worked for the “king of strikebreakers,” Pearl Bergoff. The people of Philadelphia sided with the strikers, as the PRT provided poor service and ran its operation by political backroom deals.
This strike and the others have played a pivotal role in labor history. The days of the trolley cars mark the time when organized labor began to emancipate cities and communities from privatization. Unions today have different battles, but what remains the same throughout the decades is the passion of the working man.