New Orleans General Strike
New Orleans General Strike
United States 1892
From 24 October 1892 to 11 November 1892, the city of New Orleans came to a virtual standstill as the city's employees challenged their employers for union recognition, collective bargaining, shorter workdays, increased salaries, and a closed shop, which guaranteed that union workers would be hired ahead of nonunion workers. Inspired by the streetcar drivers' successful strike earlier in the year, workers throughout New Orleans organized and lobbied for their demands. Of the striking workers, the most important group was the racially diverse Triple Alliance. As the relationship between the employees and the employers deteriorated, the unions called for a general strike. After being twice postponed, the general strike began on 8 November. Though the action lasted only three days, the workers won wage and hour concessions but failed to secure the important closed shop.
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Event and Its Context
In May 1892 New Orleans streetcar drivers struck and forced arbitration on its employers. The workers won a shorter workday, reduced from 16 to 10 hours, and a closed shop, which meant that union members would be hired in preference to nonunion applicants. As a result of the streetcar drivers' seemingly easy victory, workers flocked to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in huge numbers. Thirty new unions were chartered in New Orleans, bringing the total number of unions in the city to 95. The Workingmen's Amalgamated Council, which represented over 20,000 workers, and the Triple Alliance were formed. The more powerful of the two was the Triple Alliance, which served the AFL unions of teamsters, scalesmen, and packers, which had both black and white members. Because the Triple Alliance performed labor essential to New Orleans' success as a commercial port, its members were in a potentially advantageous position. The bulk of the South's cotton export and a good deal of the Midwest's agricultural goods traveled down the Mississippi River and through New Orleans.
The success of the streetcar drivers' strike and the confidence gained from joint action inspired the Triple Alliance to strike on 24 October, at the peak of the business season, for 10-hour days, overtime pay, and—most importantly—a closed shop. The Workingmen's Amalgamated Council immediately supported the strike. The council's president, James Leonard, firmly believed that the survival and success of unionism depended on extending the closed shop. The council and Triple Alliance founded a labor committee of five men from the oldest unions to run the strike. Ironically, none of the five men were from the Triple Alliance.
The New Orleans employers were also unified and had strong allies, including the press. In addition to raising several thousand dollars in a defense fund, the employers enlisted four railroads; the clearing house; and the cotton, sugar, rice, mechanics', and dealers' exchanges to their side. They received offers from industrialists from other regions for both support and money. The employers formed a committee of five members from the Board of Trade to deal with the strike, petitioned the governor to send the militia, and refused to enter negotiations for the first week. The Board of Trade also attempted to use race to foster divisiveness in the racially mixed Triple Alliance. The board said it would sign a contract with the white unions but not the black Teamsters. The scalesmen and packers refused to sign anything without the Teamsters. The resulting stalemate practically paralyzed the city.
The labor committee, motivated by its angry constituency and the stalemate, called for a general strike. With the threat of a general strike looming, the employers whose employees had not yet struck pressured the Board of Trade to meet with union leaders. An agreement was made that called for employees to return to work while a final settlement was reached, and the order to strike was rescinded. However, the situation between the Board of Trade and the union leaders grew gradually worse in the hours after the agreement.
Some workers refused to return to work, and some employers refused to give back jobs now filled by other workers. Both sides grew angrier and accused each other of bad faith, making both groups even more frustrated, suspicious, and stubborn. On the defensive, the merchants now refused to even begin arbitration until the workers returned to their jobs. In response, the workers again called for a general strike.
This second call for a general strike was postponed in response to a plea from the mayor, John Fitzpatrick, and City Council. In a last ditch attempt at reconciliation, Fitzpatrick brought the two sides together. The attempt was a miserable failure, and the merchants labeled Mayor Fitzpatrick a labor politician. Although the unions were ready and willing to negotiate, the Board of Trade still refused to do anything until the strike was canceled. In response, the general strike was scheduled for Monday, 7 November. Over the weekend unions held meetings to poll members who were overwhelmingly in favor of the striking. The original complaint of the Triple Alliance had evolved into a citywide effort to establish the preferential closed shop and collective bargaining throughout New Orleans.
The labor committee worked to avoid the strike and even pushed back the walk-out time in the hopes the governor, Murphy James Foster, would intervene, but on Tuesday, 8 November, the general strike occurred. It included over 20,000 workers from 42 unions and half of the organized crafts in New Orleans. Each union involved had its own demands, which usually included recognition, closed shop, wage increases, and shorter workdays. Nonindustrial workers, such as musicians and hat, shoe, and clothing clerks, joined the strike in support of the others. Public utility workers also struck. Governor Foster asked the labor committee to send utility workers back to work since they performed jobs essential to the basic operation of the city. Union leaders complied with the request, but the utility employees refused to return to work. Of the workers who already had union contracts, only the streetcar drivers and printers broke their contracts to join the strike. The Cotton Exchange, for example, remained in operation, although its workers did not overtly cooperate with the Board of Trade. The strike brought the city to a standstill.
The merchants appealed to Mayor Fitzpatrick to call in special deputies to run the city's utilities, but Fitzpatrick refused, saying he could only use his authority to preserve peace and order, not to force people to work. Fitzpatrick was unwilling to use the police as strikebreakers or as a means to frighten the strikers. The merchants, with the help of their railroad allies, brought in strikebreakers from cities in other states such as Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Galveston, Texas. With the threat of violence growing and under pressure from the governor, Fitzpatrick finally issued a call for special deputies, but only 59 people volunteered. Merchants then trained their own clerks for riot control and told the governor they would pay all the costs for the state militia if he would agree to dispatch it.
With the potential for violence increasing, Foster issued a proclamation outlawing public gatherings and threatened to call in the militia if the strike continued. Fearing bloodshed and a clash with the militia, the labor committee called an end to the strike on its third day, 11 November. Workers were restored to jobs still open and the unions won a ten-hour workday, overtime pay, and adjusted salaries, but the employers refused to grant recognition to the various unions and New Orleans remained an open shop.
Once the strike was over, the merchants organized themselves in a stronger, more permanent way, and the labor committee worked to find jobs for the blacklisted strikers. Another repercussion of the strike was a lawsuit brought in Federal Circuit Court against 44 union leaders for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act for conspiracy to restrain trade. The suit was thrown out.
The New Orleans general strike is largely considered a failure. It arguably weakened unions in New Orleans for years. There were no strikes in Louisiana in the next two years, and the number of unions in New Orleans dropped. However, the strike is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of interracial and interunion cooperation in the late 1800s and the first general strike in American history to show that skilled and unskilled workers and black and white workers could work together for a common goal, even in the Deep South.
Fitzpatrick, John (1844-1919): New Orleans mayor (1892-1896). Fitzpatrick entered politics at an early age. He holds the distinction of being the only New Orleans mayor to be impeached; he was not convicted.
Foster, Murphy James (1849-1921): Served as Louisiana state senator (1880-1892), governor (1892-1900), and United States Senator (1900-1912). A native of Louisiana, Foster attended law school at Tulane University.
Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): London-born Gompers immigrated to New York and became a cigar maker. In 1874 he became active in trade unions and eventually became president of the AFL (1886-1894 and 1896-1924).
See also: American Federation of Labor.
Filippelli, Ronald L. "New Orleans General Strike of 1892."In Labor Conflict in the United States: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1990.
Cook, Bernard A. "The Typographical Union and the New Orleans General Strike of 1892." Louisiana History 24 (1983): 377-388.
Shugg, Roger Wallace. "The New Orleans General Strike of1892." Louisiana Historical Quarterly 21 (1937): 547-560.
Brecher, Jeremy. Strike. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972.
—Lisa A. Ennis