One of the most important labor conflicts in the 20th century, the Railroad Shopmen’s Strike mobilized more than 400,000 railroad workers nationwide in 1922. The strike lasted into the following year and did not come to an official end until 1928. The shop craft workers struck in response to the decision of the Railroad Labor Board to institute a wage cut in July of 1922, the second in a series of wage cuts, and in opposition to work rule changes on the railroads. The striking workers sought better pay, the reinstatement of overtime pay, and an end to contracting out shop work, a business practice that undercut union labor.
As Minnesota Union Advocate editor William Mahoney wrote, “the greatest industrial struggle that ever occurred in America” began in countless towns and cities across the United States, wherever railroad labor had a presence, in the summer of 1922. While the railroad operators unions, such as the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers and Firemen, did not join the strike, the shop craft workers, who constituted about 20 percent of the railway labor force nationwide, walked off the job. Railroad shop men were those workers who maintained the rolling stock, the rails and rail beds, including machinists, boilermakers, sheet metal workers, and electrical workers. Their labor, while vital to the long-term condition of railroads, did not stop the trains from running immediately. This fact alone undermined the shop men’s ability to negotiate with management. Further, the economic downturn that followed the war provided the rationale for reducing the wages of railroad workers from their wartime levels. With high unemployment and a surplus of available labor, the railroad companies were able to hire replacement workers to fill nearly three-quarters of the strikers’ jobs.
The federal government played a major role in suppressing the strike. Because the aggressive response of the company and the militancy of the railroad shop unions led to confrontations in many towns and cities across the nation, the opponents of organized labor were able to call on the federal government for aid. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty persuaded President Warren G. Harding that unions and workers were resorting to violent means to win the strike. Other members of Harding’s cabinet, including Secretary of Labor James J. Davis and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, argued that the workers had some real grievances. With information on unions from the Bureau of Investigation and Harding’s approval, however, Daugherty sought a federal injunction against the strike, which federal judge James Wilkerson granted. The “Daugherty Injunction” enjoined any form of strike activity, including picketing and even assembling near rail lines. The federal government hired 2,200 new U. S. marshals to enforce the injunction and sent federal troops into centers of strike activity to control crowds and protect strikebreakers.
Federal intervention undermined the ability of the railroad shop craft unions to maintain the strike. Settlement with the unions required that worker seniority be respected; but many railroad shop men found themselves unemployed and unemployable, at least in railroad work. Only about a third of all strikers went back to their railroad jobs. Railroad superintendents such as Northern Pacific’s H. M. Curry used the strike as an opportunity to “rid the service of chronic agitators, fault finders, time servers, etc.” Rail companies targeted such “undesirables.”
The 1922 Railroad Shopmen’s Strike ended in a decisive defeat of the union, which had a chilling effect on labor relations nationwide. More than the Steel Strike Of 1919, which occurred on a similar scale in a strategic industry, the defeat of the rail strike signaled the beginning of organized labor’s retreat from workplace militancy and its turn toward accommodation during the 1920s. At the same time, because the national rail lines wished to avoid another massive confrontation, the 1922 strike paved the way for the Railway Labor Act of 1926, on which labor relations in the national railroad industry would be based for decades.
See also LABOR AND LABOR movement.
Further reading: Colin J. Davis, Power at Odds: The 1922 National Railroad Shopmen's Strike (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997).