Burlington Railroad Strike

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Burlington Railroad Strike

United States 1888


The Burlington Railroad strike of 1888 was one of the most significant labor conflicts of the nineteenth century. It tested the power of one of the most important unions of that era, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), and the approach to organization that it exemplified. It also illustrated the problems of confronting large corporations with vast resources and wide influence. The BLE's defeat was a disaster for the strikers that anticipated the problems that unions would face in the following years. In the longer term, it reinforced the unions' tendency to emphasize skilled workers and relatively narrow jurisdictions.


  • 1868: Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants civil rights to African Americans.
  • 1873: Financial panic begins in Vienna, and soon spreads to other European financial centers, as well as to the United States.
  • 1878: The first commercial telephone exchange opens, in New Haven, Connecticut.
  • 1881: U.S. President James A. Garfield is assassinated in a Washington, D.C., railway station by Charles J. Guiteau.
  • 1886: Bombing at Haymarket Square, Chicago, kills seven policemen and injures numerous others. Eight anarchists are accused and tried; three are imprisoned, one commits suicide, and four are hanged.
  • 1888: With a series of murders in London's seedy Whitechapel district, Jack the Ripper—whose identity remains a subject of debate—becomes the first known serial murder.
  • 1888: The Blizzard of 1888 in the United States kills hundreds, and causes more than $25 million in property damage.
  • 1888: American inventor George Eastman revolutionizes photography by introducing the Kodak camera, which makes it possible for amateur photographers to take satisfactory snapshots.
  • 1888: Serbian-born American electrical engineer Nikola Tesla develops a practical system for generating and transmitting alternating current (AC), which will ultimately—and after an extremely acrimonious battle—replace Thomas Edison's direct current (DC) in most homes and businesses.
  • 1890: Alfred Thayer Mahan, a U.S. naval officer and historian, publishes The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, which demonstrates the decisive role that maritime forces have played in past conflicts. The book will have an enormous impact on world events by encouraging the major powers to develop powerful navies.
  • 1894: Thousands of unemployed American workers—a group named "Coxey's Army" for their leader, Jacob S. Coxey—march on Washington, D.C. A number of such marches on the capital occurred during this period of economic challenges, but Coxey's march was the only one to actually reach its destination.
  • 1898: United States defeats Spain in the three-month Spanish-American War. As a result, Cuba gains it independence, and the United States purchases Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain for $20 million.

Event and Its Context

The Setting

The Burlington Railroad strike of April-May 1888 stood out among the thousands of strikes that marked the mid-1880s. It involved more than 1,000 strikers and 1,500 strikebreakers and guards, making it one of the most serious disputes of that era. It involved one of the largest contemporary firms, with workers in dozens of separate locations. Similarly, replacement workers came from all over the East and Midwest, testament to the regional and even national implications of such disputes. Above all, the Burlington strike was an influence, perhaps a catalyst, in the creation of an American labor movement. Until that time, unions had represented a hodgepodge of organizational forms, reflecting the varying perspectives and needs of different groups. Some organizations, such as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), were elite groups of highly skilled workers. Others, like the miners' unions, embraced everyone who worked in the industry. The most prominent union of the 1880s, the Knights of Labor (KOL), was a conglomerate of different groups. The Burlington strike helped to sort out these approaches. Though the BLE lost decisively—partly because it was unable to attract the support of less-skilled railroad employees and the organizations that represented or sought to represent them, notably the KOL—the legacy of bitterness was so great that the BLE and other elite groups became even more rigid in their determination to chart their own courses.


In the 1880s the American railroad industry was the foremost exemplar of industrialization and technological innovation. Though only 50 years old, the railroads spanned the continent and, by the end of the 1880s, would connect nearly every community to every other community. Railroading was also one of the preeminent high technology industries of the age. Based on steam power, the great symbol of nineteenth-century industrialization, it introduced a host of new and complex machines and created a vast array of new jobs, including the engineer, who operated the engine and in effect the train, and the fireman, who stoked the boiler and backed up the engineer. Apart from technical skills, the locomotive engineer had to have sound judgment and a sense of social responsibility. Hundreds of people were killed or injured every year because a few engineers lacked the skill, judgment, or maturity to operate their engines safely. Successful engineers thus commanded great respect and earned the highest average wages of all industrial workers. Nevertheless, their lives were difficult. They were often away from home, faced great personal danger, and, as the highest paid railroad employees, were targets of cost-cutting campaigns. In response, engineers sought the support and assistance of other engineers.

The BLE formed in 1864, largely to provide assistance to the families of engineers who were killed in accidents. In the 1870s the organization began to assume economic functions, for example by striking against employers who cut wages. Conflicts over strike policies led to an internal upheaval and the election in 1874 of Peter M. Arthur as president. A cautious leader who emphasized the union's economic role, Arthur promoted collective bargaining but opposed strikes. Between 1874 and 1888 he recruited thousands of new members and negotiated numerous wage agreements with railroads but did not call a single strike.

Arthur was also conservative in another sense. Engineers may have been the aristocrats of rail crews, but they presided over a hierarchy of other workers. A good argument could be made for enlisting all of these employees in a single organization so as to maximize the workers' influence in their dealings with railroad managers. Arthur and a majority of BLE members rejected this argument, scorning any organizational link with nonengineers, even the firemen. In effect, they defined their union in the narrowest possible way. As a consequence the firemen, brakemen, conductors, and ultimately other railroad occupations organized and bargained separately.

Fragmentation did not necessarily mean hostility or lack of cooperation, but the potential existed. In the mid-1880s rivalries developed between the BLE and the KOL, which also enlisted railroad workers and competed successfully on some lines. The BLE pointedly refused to support major KOL strikes in 1886 and 1887. Workers who had lost their jobs when those strikes failed were naturally bitter and often blamed the BLE for their plight.

The other major element in the 1888 conflict was the Burlington Railroad, a notable example of a relatively new phenomenon: the big business corporation. The first large railroad corporations had appeared on the eve of the Civil War. During the boom years of the postwar period, the late l860s to the early 1870s and 1880s, railroads grew and consolidated through mergers, mostly in the East, and through building into new areas, mostly in the West. The Burlington, which was located strategically between Chicago, the principal rail hub, and the eastern terminals of the new transcontinental railroads, was among the fastest growing of them all. Under a visionary president, Charles E. Perkins, it grew from 1,300 miles of track in 1881 to 7,600 miles in 1901, when Perkins retired. To expand that rapidly, the company had to decentralize decision-making. Regional managers thus had substantial autonomy, including the ability to negotiate labor agreements with employees. Perkins had one hard-and-fast rule, however. He would not formally recognize any union or acknowledge the employees' right to belong to such organizations. In normal times local managers were generally cooperative, despite the rule. In a showdown, however, union members knew there would be reprisals.

The Strike Begins

Though the BLE had successfully negotiated an agreement with the Burlington in 1886, two major grievances remained unsettled. First, the company paid lower wages to new hires than to veteran workers. On the surface this was a logical distinction because experience was essential to safe and effective locomotive operations. Burlington managers, however, used the differential to discriminate against experienced employees. When they had to reduce costs, they would lay off the older, higher paid workers and hire novices. At that point the second policy became a problem. The company only promoted from within, and Burlington managers interpreted this policy as a ban on the rehiring of workers who had been laid off. Thus workers who lost their jobs in cost-cutting campaigns could never regain them. Because the Burlington was the only railroad in many Midwestern towns, former Burlington employees had no choice but to leave their homes or leave the industry. The effects were both financially disastrous and humiliating to proud, respected, and comparatively affluent engineers.

By early 1888, militant workers were ready to strike against the company, regardless of BLE policy. A series of misunderstandings and the managers' refusal to settle several minor grievances were the last straw. On 17 February the militants walked away from their engines and appealed for support. Many other engineers and firemen joined them. Burlington operations were paralyzed and Arthur and the head of the firemen's union had no choice but to support the strike. Perkins, surprised and angry, determined to teach the strikers a lesson.

At his direction, the managers did everything in their power to keep the trains running. To fill the strikers' ranks, they suspended the rule against not hiring former employees and outsiders—precisely the rules that had provoked the engineers—and hired new engineers. Some of the new employees were former Burlington workers who were willing to come back under any conditions. Others, apparently a substantial number, were KOL. The Burlington had formerly refused to hire KOL members; then it disregarded union affiliation—another affront to the strikers—and assured the replacement workers that their jobs would be permanent. It even gave them seniority over any of the strikers who eventually returned. By late March, Burlington operations were back at their prestrike level.

Apart from hiring new engineers, the Burlington managers sought to prevent pickets from interfering with train operations. To protect strategic areas such as rail yards, stations, and bridges, management adopted the provocative strategy of employing armed guards. Working through the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a notorious strikebreaking outfit, Burlington hired a small army of thugs and petty criminals to keep the strikers at bay. The strikers understood what was happening, of course, and often confronted the guards. A number of violent altercations left at least four men dead and a much larger number injured. Nevertheless, the guards succeeded in their immediate goal.

The company also persuaded most other railroads to accept Burlington cars, thus thwarting union efforts to organize a boycott. Some rival managers covertly encouraged their employees to refuse to handle Burlington property, but most of them decided that if the BLE won the strike it would be much tougher to deal with in the future. The Burlington managers also obtained a court injunction against the boycott, which made the union as well as the strikers subject to legal reprisals.

By April the strike had failed. Arthur and his counterpart in the firemen's union urged the strikers to return to work to save their jobs and formally called off the strike in January l889. Still, many strikers refused to go back. Others reappliedbut found that there were no openings or that they had been blacklisted. Most of the Burlington strikers never returned to their old jobs. In many small towns along the Burlington line, the divisions and antagonisms created by the 1888 strike lasted for decades.


The Burlington strike had a lasting impact on the labor movement, the practice of industrial relations, and the policies of large corporations. The BLE and its members were the most obvious losers. Despite its strength and resources, the BLE had proven no match for a large, aggressive corporation. The strike had failed in so many ways that it was hard to imagine what the union could do to prevent similar debacles in the future. The most commonly suggested change was to scrap the narrow occupational focus of the BLE in favor of a comprehensive organization. Several years later Eugene V. Debs, vice president of the Fireman's Brotherhood, embraced this approach in his American Railway Union, which had some initial successes. In 1894, however, Debs and the ARU became involved in a conflict with the Pullman Company that escalated into a strike against the major midwestern railroads and ended exactly as the Burlington strike had ended.

In the aftermath of the Burlington strike, Arthur, who had faced considerable internal opposition for failing to support the strikers more effectively, reasserted his original position on strikes and craft unionism. The collapse of the Pullman strike strengthened his position. The brotherhoods went their separate, parallel ways and succeeded in organizing most of the skilled workers who made up the train crews. Other railroad workers had greater difficulty, and the laborers who maintained tracks and performed unskilled jobs remained unorganized until the World War I years. The pattern of the railroad industry, moreover, became roughly the pattern of industry in general.

The strike also affected the Burlington Company. Though it had won the conflict, the financial cost had been enormous. Nor had it ended the union presence. Many of the replacement workers were union members or former members, and few of them were grateful to the company for their jobs. The BLE and other unions quickly revived. The Burlington managers began to realize that their policies were counterproductive. By the turn of the century, they had made peace with the brotherhoods and introduced company welfare plans to inoculate the other employees. Their actions probably helped prevent an ARU-style union from emerging, but they did little to prevent the spread of craft unionism in the industry.

The Burlington strike also helped shape the social reform agenda of the following years. Unions had long bemoaned the effects of strikebreaking but had made little progress against conservative defenses of the rights of property owners. Yet the railroads were so big, their services so vital, and the effects of unrestrained industrial conflict so far-reaching that many people began to question the wisdom of the traditional view. There had been many violent miners' strikes, but they tended to occur in remote rural areas and had little effect on nonparticipants. The violence in railroad strikes was more visible, appalling, and disruptive. As a consequence, the following decades would see a sustained and gradually successful campaign by unions and their allies to restrain and regulate industrial disputes, especially those involving railroad workers.

Key Players

Arthur, Peter M. (1831-1903): Arthur was born in Scotland and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1842. He obtained his first railroad job at 18 and remained associated with railroad labor for the rest of his life. Active in local unions and then in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE), he was elected grand chief or president in 1874, a position he retained for the rest of his life. Arthur was a tireless advocate of collective bargaining and of independence from the rest of the labor movement. Under his stewardship, the BLE became one of the most formidable American unions. A Cleveland resident, Arthur was active in civic affairs and a highly successful real estate speculator.

Perkins, Charles E. (1840-1907): Perkins was a New England native with family ties to major business interests. His cousin, John Murray Forbes, was a merchant who took the lead in directing Boston mercantile capital into western railroads and became the principal owner and officer of the Burlington Railroad. Perkins started at the Burlington as a clerk in 1859 but with Forbes's backing, rose rapidly to vice president in 1873 and president in 1881. Under Perkins's leadership, the Burlington expanded rapidly, becoming one of the country's largest and most profitable railroads. Perkins was not inflexible on labor issues but tried to contain union power. His approach became the approach of most rail managers after 1900.

See also: American Federation of Labor; Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers; Pullman Strike.



McMurry, Donald L. The Great Burlington Strike of 1888: A Case History in Labor Relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Overton, Richard C. Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Richardson, Reed C. The Locomotive Engineer, 1863-1963: A Century of Railway Labor Relations and Work Rules.

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, l963.

—Daniel Nelson

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