One city’s heroic general strike defies racial divisions
by Chris Mahin
“Tie the town up!” was the workers’ battle cry – and for several days, they did.
The strike hit just as the commercial season began. The delivery of food and beverages ceased. Street cars stopped running. Street cleaning and fire-fighting ground to a halt. Electrical and gas workers walked out, plunging the city into darkness at night. Manufacturing stopped.
The New Orleans general strike began on November 8, 1892. One historian called it “the first general strike in American history to enlist both skilled and unskilled labor, black and white, and to paralyze the life of a great city.” It involved 25,000 workers – half the city’s work force – and lasted four days.
The general strike was a response to the arrogant refusal of the New Orleans Board of Trade to negotiate seriously with three unions which had gone on strike on 24th October. The original strikers were members of the Teamsters, Scalesmen, and Packers unions. They comprised the Triple Alliance, and they walked out because the Board of Trade refused to grant them a 10-hour day, overtime pay, and a preferential union shop (a situation in which the employer goes first to the union when seeking to hire new employees).
The Board of Trade soon announced that it would sign an agreement with the Scalesmen and the Packers unions, but not with the Teamsters’ Union, whose membership was predominantly African-American. Under no circumstances, the Board of Trade said, would they “enter into any agreement with ‘niggers.’ “ To sign an agreement with the Triple Alliance including the Teamsters, the Board of Trade asserted, would be to place the employers under the control of blacks, for soon the man who would control the Alliance “would be a Big Black Negro.”
The bigotry of the Board of Trade was matched by the New Orleans newspapers. They rushed to print accounts of “mobs of brutal Negro strikers” roaming around the city, “beating up all who attempted to interfere with them.”
To their credit, the workers of the Triple Alliance stayed united, despite the attempts to split them along color lines. The Scalesmen and Packers publicly declared that they would never return to work until the employers signed up with all three members of the Triple Alliance. The members of other unions in New Orleans began to call for a general strike in support of the Triple Alliance.
On 8th November, the general strike began. Each of the 49 unions on strike demanded union recognition and a closed shop. (In many cases, individual unions added their own specific demands for shorter hours and higher wages.) Several of the unions involved – including the street car drivers and the printers – violated their contracts in order to join the general strike. The unions were organized into a citywide central labor body called the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council. The general strike was led by five labour leaders known as the Committee of Five.
Louisiana Governor Murphy Foster assumed control of the city on 10th November. He placed several battalions of the state militia on alert. Despite the fact that the strikers had been peaceful and orderly, Foster issued a proclamation ordering citizens not to congregate in crowds. The proclamation implied that the militia would be called out if the strike continued. Foster’s edict amounted to a declaration of martial law, and warned labour of possible bloodshed ahead.
Unwilling to stake their unions’ very existence on a confrontation with the militia, the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council called off the general strike. Under the final agreement, both sides agreed that arbitration would settle the economic issues. The next day, an arbitration board granted the Triple Alliance small wage increases and a reduction of hours. However, the striking unions failed to win their most important demand – the closed shop. Hundreds of union workers, especially the freight handlers, street car drivers, and employees of Standard Oil Company, lost their jobs to “replacement workers.” The fired workers, both black and white, denounced the Committee of Five for “treachery.” Many unions withdrew from the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council over the next several months.
The failure of the strikers to secure the closed shop ultimately undermined their other gains. Within a year, the Panic of 1893 would mark the beginning of the 19th century’s worst economic crisis, producing high unemployment and deep wage cuts for African-Americans and whites alike. The solidarity across color lines displayed in 1892 was soon replaced by bitter hostility as wages plunged and many white dockworkers in New Orleans fought to deny African-American workers access to the few good jobs available.
The general strike in New Orleans came at the end of a remarkable year that saw strikes by steelworkers in Homestead, Pennsylvania; train switchmen in Buffalo, New York; coal miners in east Tennessee; and silver miners in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
One month after the New Orleans general strike ended, a fiery labour editor named John Swinton spoke to the national convention of the American Federation of Labor. Responding to those who claimed that “labour was defeated in all those fields and fights, from Buffalo to Coeur d’Alene, from Homestead and New York to New Orleans,” Swinton replied: “Halt! … We must take a broad view of the warlike operations of which these strikes were incidents. Skirmishes may be lost by a regiment which may win. Regiments may be defeated in the battles of a triumphant campaign. Campaigns may end in dismay for the army that conquers in the war. Be not in haste. … The thing is not over yet. The forces of the advance have but begun to learn their drill. Serious revolutions move in large arcs, along a course which is orderly, though it may appear to be zig-zag. …
“The 50,000 brave men who, in the six great strikes and many lesser strikes of this year, stood the enemy’s onslaughts, rendered a service of incomputable worth to the working masses of the United States. … If they had failed to strike a blow before they fell – what do you think would have happened elsewhere? Do you doubt that cowardice would have invited further reprisals, that the conditions of labor would have been made harder in other places and other industries? …
“If, therefore, many of the hostile schemes of the enemy were checked or balked this year … due credit for this must be given to … the strikers who resisted aggression, set their comrades on the watch by raising the alarm. …
“I ask you to bear it in mind, to hold it in grateful memory, that American labor in general has been benefited by the action of the brave strikers of Homestead, Buffalo, New Orleans, who took the field in its defense and fell while battling for a few of the items of its rights.”
It’s a point well worth remembering today, as we again face an uphill battle for our rights.