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Rail Tycoons Crushed Strikes With Troops, Guns: Lewis Lapham

'1877: America's Year of Living Violently'
The cover jacket of "1877: America's Year of Living Violently." The book is the latest by historian Michael A. Bellesiles. Source: The New Press via Bloomberg

July 24 (Bloomberg) -- Telling the newspapers his employees would “cheerfully recognize” the need to reduce costs, John Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, announced a 10 percent wage cut for workers on July 15, 1877, while also approving a 10 percent dividend for shareholders. He was wrong.

Already suffering on less than half the pay they’d earned just four years earlier, some rail workers walked off the job. B&O had the leaders arrested, brought in strikebreakers and called in the troops.

“The whole thing grows out of too much pay and speculation among the head men,” wrote one paper. “Big salaries, wine suppers, free passes and presents to Congressmen for their votes.”

In solidarity, canal workers, miners and other laborers joined the work stoppage, with angry crowds gathering in many cities across the country. When militia and soldiers were ordered to bayonet and fire on the demonstrators, killing civilians, including women and children, this spontaneous labor action kicked off the first national strike in U.S. history.

I spoke with Michael Bellesiles, author of “1877: America’s Year of Living Violently” (New Press), on the following topics:

1. The Great Strike

2. Crushing Workers

3. Terror of the Upper Class

4. First Red Scare

5. Stealing Elections

To listen to the podcast, click here. To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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