A Mostly Forgotten Labor Tale of 19th-Century Texas
AUSTIN, Texas — When I took Texas history in public school, we weren't taught one single thing about the labor movement in this state — but we did learn the name of the horse that Sam Houston rode at the Battle of San Jacinto, which happened to be Saracen.
So you may not have heard of the Great Southwest Strike of 1886, the largest and most important clash between management and organized labor in 19th-century Texas history.
In Bruceville, 16 miles south of Waco, is a monument to Martin Irons, who led the Great Strike. Even allowing for the florid sentimentality of 19th-century orators, Irons seems to have been an uncommonly good man, gentle and warm, and a natural leader.
He was born in Scotland in 1827 and immigrated to the United States at the age of 14. He worked as a machinist for the railroads all over the Southwest; he was a member of the machinists union and the Knights of Pythias. He was also interested in the Grange, the populist farmers movement.
According to Ruth Allen's "The Great Southwest Strike" (Austin: University of Texas, 1942), his politics consisted of anger "at the encroaching domination of corporate business as monopolist and employer, with agrarian insistence upon ownership of the land as the basis of liberty."
The following account is taken mostly from Allen's 163-page monograph on the strike:
Irons, a master workman, joined the Knights of Labor in 1884 and helped form District Assembly 101, composed of workers for Jay Gould's Southwestern railroads. He was later elected chairman of the executive committee of the union assembly. For those of you whose late 19th-century history has faded, Jay Gould was, to put it gently, a seriously disgusting specimen of Robber Baron who controlled all the Southwestern railroads through interlocking companies.
In 1885, the year before the Great Strike, Gould fired the Knights of Labor shop men of the Wabash line, causing a walkout. The Knights working for other railroads refused to operate any train with Wabash cars and so brought Gould to the bargaining table. It was a great victory for the workers, and the Knights gained members, but Gould was determined to destroy the union.
In March 1886, Irons called a strike against Gould's Texas & Pacific Railway over the firing of a foreman in Marshall, and all hell broke loose.
The T&P strike soon spread to other railroad lines, as in the '85 strike.
Gould also asked for military assistance from the governors of states affected by the strike. Texas Gov. John Ireland sent the state militia and the Texas Rangers to Buttermilk Switch in Fort Worth. This early example of using the Rangers for union-busting is of particular interest to those who remember the Rangers' strike-breaking activities in the Valley during efforts to organize the farmworkers in the 1960s.
The ensuing violence turned public opinion against the strikers. Gould refused to negotiate, and the strike failed.
"Failure of the Great Southwest Strike represented the first major defeat sustained by the Knights of Labor and proved to be a fatal blow to their vision of an industrial union that would unite all railroad workers in the Southwest into 'one big union.' Once again, an emerging labor organization was crushed when competing with powerful, determined and well-organized industrialists in command of nationally based corporations," Allen concludes.
Martin Irons was blacklisted and could not hold a regular job. He moved to St. Louis, Little Rock, Ark., and Fort Worth for brief periods, sometimes using an assumed name.
In 1894, his health was failing; G.B. Harris of Bruceville, a democratic socialist, offered him a home. Allen reports that he continued to work for social reform until his death in 1900.
A lot of busted heads and broken lives went into making the eight-hour workday a reality. Think how mad Irons and all those other fighters would be at us for letting the corporations get away with mandatory overtime and 60-hour workweeks, month after month.
The thing about corporations is that they never give anything away out of the goodness of their non-existent hearts. As economist Milton Friedman put it, the only social obligation of a corporation is to make money. Workers still have to fight for a decent life.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.
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