The Strike of 1888

The late 19th century was a time of rapid growth for CB&Q, both geographically and organizationally. As the railroad expanded across the American west the labor force expanded as well, and conflicts between management and laborers exploded. The intersection of CB&Q’s priorities as a business with the treatment of its workforce became a source of tension and unrest within the company, and was also indicative of similar issues facing a rapidly industrializing United States. CB&Q was involved in disputes affecting business and labor on a grand scale, and the decisions made by the company in the wake of worker rebellion reflected the changing attitudes of business towards labor, and management responsibility for employee welfare.  

CB&Q, along with other American railroads, experienced a major labor uprising in 1877. While the 1877 strike considerably affected railroad operations, it was also significant for the conflict it illuminated among CB&Q management regarding how to handle the striking workers, especially between President Robert Harris, J.M Forbes, and C.E. Perkins, who was general manager at the time.  Harris’ comparatively benevolent approach and willingness to negotiate clashed with Perkins’ philosophy of “make no concessions,” and by the end of 1878 Forbes had installed himself as president, Perkins became chief executive, and Robert Harris had left the company.

Initiated by the engineers, and later growing to include firemen & switchmen, the 1888 conflict was rooted in a desire to equalize compensation and increase job security, though also addressed some other concerns such as extra tasks and long hours away from home. The engineers and firemen had two primary demands: they wanted pay based on mileage rather than type of trip, and they wanted CB&Q to abolish the job classification system, which hired new employees at a lower pay rate, and allowed for the discharge of higher paid engineers to continually promote these lower paid workers. In 1886, a grievance committee of CB&Q engineers had brought these demands before then-general manager T.J. Potter, threatening a strike if the company did not comply. While Potter refused to institute mileage pay, he did sign an agreement addressing some other concerns and offering to adjust inequitable pay wherever needed. At the time, both sides were satisfied with this outcome.  Expectations that CB&Q management would stand by the agreement were dashed, however, when T.J. Potter resigned to take a job with Union Pacific. Enforcement became lax, and engineers and firemen felt their concerns had been disregarded.  

When the strike of 1888 ignited, Perkins had been president of CB&Q for about 7 years, and the company’s position on labor practices and employee benefits reflected his strong opposition to organized labor and what he considered paternalism.  Perkins and the CB&Q executives also firmly believed in business as property, and the fundamental right to manage property in whatever way they saw fit.  On the other hand, the workers felt it was their right to negotiate as a unit, through agents of their own choosing, with respect to their wages and working conditions- a process which would come to be known as collective bargaining.

While initially receptive to talking with representatives from the engineers & firemen’s groups, Perkins was in Boston when the engineers called for a meeting. From the very beginning, communication between all parties took time and the resulting misunderstandings created enmity on both sides. And Perkins’ choice of H.B. Stone to negotiate with the strikers had an unintended negative effect. Compared with the easygoing persona of his predecessor T.J. Potter, Stone’s Harvard background and rapid ascent through the CB&Q ranks caused employees to view him as a symbol of east coast elitism, and alienated him from the average CB&Q laborer. In addition, Stone’s hearing problems gave him an air of aloofness and disinterest. While the failure of strike negotiations was undeniably due to inflexibility on both sides, Perkins’ decision to invest Stone with full responsibility in his absence had an obvious impact as well.   

Almost immediately after the engineers decided to strike on February 27, the company replaced them with men from other departments, and hired new men to keep passenger and freight service running.  A small faction of strikers began to intimidate these new hires, known as scabs, but their efforts proved unsuccessful. With their walkout thwarted, the strikers received much needed help from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which instituted a nation-wide boycott against CB&Q. Workers on other lines refused to load freight on to CB&Q cars, and, due to fears of unrest among their own men, management chose not to intervene. The boycott had more of an effect than the original walkout, and did not end until CB&Q took the matter to the federal courts. When the courts deemed the boycott illegal as a violation of the Interstate Commerce Act, the Brotherhood rescinded it, only to reinstitute it when the switchmen struck two days later. After a repeat of the previous walkout-rehire-boycott scenario just experienced with the engineers, CB&Q again took the matter to court, and again the courts sided with the company.   

Thus by April 4, the strike of 1888 was essentially over, though the aftermath would drag on for the rest of the year. Talks between Perkins & chief engineer P.M. Arthur illuminate the reasoning behind and the differences between labor and management attitudes. While Perkins was receptive to the concerns of the engineers, he would negotiate with them only as individuals, or as members of locally based unions, but not part of a national Brotherhood. He refused to abolish classification and would not fire new men to hire back strikers. However, he agreed to rectify wage inequalities and agreed to take back strikers if space allowed. Arthur continued to insist upon mileage pay, which would abolish classification, and also insisted that all strikers be rehired at their old wages. These differences clearly provoked and prolonged the existing stalemate, but Perkins’ refusal to consider arbitration, which he considered unnatural, also contributed. Perkins’ purely pro-business attitude that only the “buyers” and “sellers” had the right to decide disputes overruled suggestions of arbitration from managers of other roads, who held that CB&Q had no right to keep their affairs private as a public company.

Perkins’ stubbornness endured, however, and by May he had the full support of CB&Q’s directors & stockholders. By summer the company offered to take back all strikers for whom there were places, but the strikers continued to hold out for their demands, even though the engineers & firemen unions had urged the CB&Q men to back down.

At this point, two major factors influenced events and brought about the final end to the strike: public opinion and violence.  Both sided engaged in propaganda, distributing broadsides and newsletters to promote their particular point of view. CB&Q management also took advantage of the newspaper industry’s generally pro-management stance, and published a list of the men’s demands and the company’s response. By maintaining friendly relationships with newspapers in various towns, management kept the company’s case effectively before the public. Opposing propaganda from the strikers proved not as effective or well handled. With their own broadsides and newsletters, strikers attempted to undermine public confidence in CB&Q by attacking the competence of new hires, intimating that the line could not run properly with these new, unskilled recruits. 

At the same time, the strikers began to realize that continuing the strike was futile. Faced with this, some men concluded that violence was their only option, especially with public opinion turned against them.  Anticipating this, the company brought in Pinkerton agents to infiltrate the unions, and also appointed some loyal employees as special officers. Throughout the summer of 1888, attacks were frequent, with attempts to disable locomotives, obstructions placed on tracks, and other acts of sabotage. The violence culminated with a series of dynamite explosions, which could have been much worse had the Pinkerton agents not uncovered the plot.

While the national unions and most of the strikers condemned the violence, they voted to continue the strike. But by the fall of 1888, the Brotherhood had withdrawn support. For their part, CB&Q management removed H.B. Stone from further involvement by promoting him to vice president, and appointed general freight agent E.P. Ripley in his place, a move that many considered indicative of the company’s desire to end the strike. Finally the switchmen called off the strike in December, and the company agreed to take men back where they could. A committee of engineers and firemen negotiated with management later in the month, and CB&Q agreed to take back some men and recommend those who did not participate in the violence to other companies. And finally, the strike ended, January 4, 1889.

The year of unrest proved costly to both sides. Though the company could claim victory, CB&Q showed a deficit for the first time since 1857, and dividends would remain low under Perkins’ presidency. However, most officials agreed that the financial sacrifice was necessary for the company to retain control. But the aftermath was felt most acutely for the strikers, whose bargaining power was greatly diminished. In addition, the national union influence was seen as disruptive by the management for some time, and union men were generally not hired on the CB&Q for the next fifteen years.

Some positive outcomes did result from the strike, however. Perkins finally agreed to establish an employee relief department, and made sincere attempts to strengthen the bonds between the men and the company. Though he never wavered on his convictions regarding fair wages and the laws of supply and demand, he developed a greater awareness of worker needs, and also ensured that they were treated fairly by CB&Q management. 

The Strike of 1888