The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and the Formation of the American Federation of Labor

In the 20 years following the Civil War, the railroad industry in America exploded. Railways were being laid at an astonishing pace and were the backbone of the country’s industrial economy. Some of the railway workers of the time belonged to the Knights of Labor, an early labor union that pushed for an eight-hour workday and other working conditions. In the 1880s a railway worker and member of the Knights of Labor in Marshall, Texas, was fired for attending a union meeting on work time. This action led to the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886.

The strike quickly spread and soon more than 200,000 workers were on strike in five states. Although the strike started because of the man who got fired, the workers quickly added wages, hours and unsafe working conditions to their list of complaints. Rather than giving in to the strikers’ demands, industrialist Jay Gould, who owned about 12 percent of all railroads, quickly hired strikebreakers to come in and continue building. Another factor that led to the failure of the strike was that the Brotherhood of Engineers did not join the strike.

The Grand Master Workman who ran the various chapters of the Knights of Labor met on March 19,1885 and attempted to resolve the issues and end the strike, but they failed to reach an agreement. Several violent incidents led Gould go call in state militia in both Missouri and Texas, which resulted in retaliation by the union workers.

The strike ended by September of 1886, but the failure led to the collapse of the Knights of Labor. Leaders from several other unions, including Samuel Gompers of the cigar makers union and Peter J. McGuire of the carpenters union, met in December 1886 to form the American Federation of Labor, a more comprehensive and effective labor union.