The following passages are excerpted and slightly adapted from The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Little, Brown and Company).
Part 1: The Great Upheaval
What came to be known as the Great Upheaval, the movement for the eight-hour day, elicited what one historian has called “a strange enthusiasm.” The normal trade union strike is a finite event joining two parties contesting over limited, if sometimes intractable, issues. The mass strike in 1886 or before that in 1877—all the many localized mass strikes that erupted in towns and small industrial cities after the Civil War and into the new century—was open-ended and ecumenical in reach.
So, for example, in Baltimore when the skilled and better-paid railroad brakemen on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad first struck in 1877 so, too, did less well off “box-makers, sawyers, and can-makers, engaged in the shops and factories of that city, [who] abandoned their places and swarmed into the streets.” This in turn “stimulated the railroad men to commit bolder acts.” When the governor of West Virginia sent out the Berkeley Light Guard and Infantry to confront the strikers at Martinsburg at the request of the railroad’s vice president, the militia retreated and “the citizens of the town, the disbanded militia, and the rural population of the surrounding country fraternized,” encouraging the strikers.
The centrifugal dynamic of the mass strike was characteristic of this extraordinary phenomenon. By the third day in Martinsburg the strikers had been “reinforced during the night at all points by accessions of working men engaged in other avocations than railroading,” which, by the way, made it virtually impossible for federal troops by then on the scene to recruit scabs to run the trains.
By the fourth day, “mechanics, artisans, and laborers in every department of human industry began to show symptoms of restlessness and discontent.” Seeping deeper and deeper into the subsoil of proletarian life, down below the “respectable” working class of miners and mechanics and canal boat-men, frightened observers reported a “mighty current of passion and hate” sweeping up a “vast swarm of vicious idlers, vagrants, and tramps.” And so it went.
Smaller cities and towns like Martinsburg were often more likely than the biggest urban centers to experience this sweeping sense of social solidarity. (What today we might call a massing of the 99%.) During the 1877 Great Uprising, the social transmission of the mass strike moved first along the great trunk lines of the struck railroads, but quickly flowed into the small villages and towns along dozens of tributary lines and into local factories, workshops, and coal mines as squads of strikers moved from settlement to settlement mobilizing the populace.