Free labor on the southwestern railroads : the 1885-1886 Gould system strikes
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“Free Labor on the Southwestern Railroads” tells the story of the 1885- 1886 strikes on Jay Gould’s southwestern system of railroads, which included the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific, Missouri Pacific, and Texas & Pacific railways. These labor conflicts involved thousands of railroad men and their families and played a pivotal role in the making and unmaking of the Knights of Labor, the first national union to organize and actively recruit across lines of race, skill, religion, nativity, and gender. The dissertation argues that the Southwest strikers were “boomer” railroaders who experienced deteriorating conditions and falling wages where they had expected to find economic and social mobility and a wider field for affirming their shared ideas about manhood on the western railroads. The receding frontier of labor scarcity, combined with the success of the March 1885 walkout, led Gould System railroaders to conceive of “free labor” in new terms. viii Many embraced the Knights’ producer ideology, making possible a broad-based movement. The hierarchy of race on the railroads and its all-male working environment, and the particular hostilities that free itinerant workers felt toward convict and Chinese laborers, undercut the Knights’ universalizing ideology. Still, the experiences of Gould System Knights with skilled trainmen, railroad officials and managers, and the order’s national leadership pushed them to wage a massive strike in 1886 for recognition of employee grievance committees. The walkout ended in defeat, not because Knights divided openly over the very different meanings they attributed to free labor, but because strikers had overestimated their power to stop the trains and the nature of anti-monopoly sentiment in their communities. In contrast to the March 1885 conflict, in 1886 Gould System railroad officials and receivers were able to obtain the aid of skilled trainmen, state and local authorities, community members, and a number of Knights themselves in quelling the strike.