“When the Sleeper Wakes” The Street Car and General Strike in Philadelphia’ by Joseph E. Cohen from International Socialist Review. Vol. 10 No. 10. April, 1910.
A CHILD does not blossom into maturity in a day, nor can a weakling to transformed into a Hercules over night. It requires the lapse of many years in the one instance as in the other. And several decades may pass before a city or a nation attains its majority. Yet there is no telling for how long a time the elements have been gathering for some mighty upheaval; how soon, when the surface of things seemed as calm as ever, there would break out an eruption such as would rearrange all that seemed stable and permanent.
Philadelphia is the third city, in population, in America. It has its own peculiar makeup, fondles its own brand of conservatism and will have to work out its own method of salvation from the condition of “corruption and contentment” which has been ascribed to it.
It is a city of “magnificent distances.” That, of itself, explains a great deal, for solidarity and separation are usually antithetical, and Philadelphia is spread over such a wide territory, that people who work and live in Manayunk, Chestnut Hill, Germantown, Olney, Fox Chase, Frankford and Bridesburg—all within the city limits—come down to the center of the city much as country folk go “into town.” Many wageworkers in these localities have had no notion at all of what a trades union is. The seeds of class feeling were only beginning to be scattered among them, their outlook was for all the world, that of some fair sized village—not of the third city in America.
The trades union movement of Philadelphia, as would be expected, is in a backward condition. There is the Central Labor Union, composed of possibly a majority of the organizations of labor in the city. There is the Allied Building Trades Council, which broke away because of the scramble for control of the central organization. There are the Hebrew Trades and German Trades, practically independent organizations. And there is the Central Union of Textile Workers, comprising about thirty locals—the sinews of the Kensington mill district—and less than half a dozen of them have been sending delegates to the Central Labor Union. Unallied with the central body, too, are the railway organizations and some other unions.
It may also be said, in passing, that the Central Labor Union exercises about as much jurisdiction over the organized labor of the city as does the Executive Council over the American Federation of Labor. Its usefulness is largely advisory. Complete autonomy prevails among the craft organizations except in so far as they discuss each other’s grievances in the “sections” or “councils” consisting of delegates from the crafts most closely related. The powers of the sections and councils, in turn, are considerably circumscribed. The great ship yards, locomotive and car shops, steel works, refineries and larger industrial establishments in general are practically operated by unorganized labor.
Into this state of affairs was projected the strike of the street car men of the city, members of Division 477 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Men of America.
The present strike was the logical outcome of the forming of the car men’s union. Ever since the defeat sustained by the men in the strike of 1894, there had been no organization. One incipient union was started in 1907 and 1908, but was quite easily discouraged by the display of police force, in the deliberate prevention of one mass meeting and the beating up of motormen and conductors at another. When the strike came in May, 1909, only a few hundred men out of a possible 6,000 were members of the union. The men as a whole were dissatisfied with their lot—but, they did not want organization; they wanted fight.
The company was appalled at the sentiment di splayed, both among the employes and the public. Even at such notoriously non-union establishments as Baldwin’s Locomotive Works and Stetson’s Hat Factory, feeling ran strong against the strike breakers. At the navy yard a conflict between the marines and the police on strike duty was barely averted. The employes at the federal arsenals were so disaffected that all efforts to coerce them to ride the cars had to be abandoned. After a week of strike the company capitulated, granted some concessions and signed a contract promising to deal fairly with the men.
The company made the contract in order to evade and break it. It had agreed to discharge no man without just warrant, and to permit the union’s grievance committee to plead the case of any one dismissed. On Friday, February 19, it locked out several hundred employes “for the good of the service.” It later admitted that it considered membership in the union to conflict with good service. Its avowed purpose was to exterminate the car men’s union.
The officials of the local union carried the news to Clarence O. Pratt, chairman of the international executiv1e board, who was then in town. A meeting of the local executive board, consisting of representatives from the nineteen car barns, was promptly called. Sanction for the step to be taken was wired from international headquarters. Saturday noon the order was given to strike. By nightfall every union man had left his car.
The union was not anxious for a fight just then. The organization was less than a year old, and dissension had been spread by some of the old officers, who were finally expelled from the union, and not a few of whom were taken care of by the company or the local politicians. Moreover, the union did not desire a strike in the midst of winter, for obvious reasons. But when the lockout came, there was no alternative. It was fight or perish.
The people were in sympathy with the union. In almost every part of the city there was “rioting,” cars were stoned and destroyed, crews beaten up and the strikers supported financially. Even Manayunk, with its most poverty stricken population, entered its protest against the company and the city authorities. But it was noticeable from the start, that, whatever sporadic outbursts there were elsewhere, the intensest feeling was manifested in the Kensington mill district. Here class consciousness was most acutely developed.
Sunday following the declaration of the strike crowds began congregating. It is safe to say that ten thousand people strolled about along Kensington avenue, within the radius of half a mile. The scene at one point will give an idea of how the crowd works.
Belgian blocks and culvert lids are piled up at the intersection of two streets. A car comes along. It stops at the obstruction. A volley of bricks and stones shatter every pane of glass. The policeman on the car throws up his hands and joins the crowd. The motorman follows suit. His coat and hat are ripped from him but he is not otherwise molested. The conductor tries to run away. In a minute he is writhing in the street from a shower of blows. He staggers to his feet, blinded by the blood which spurts from a gash in his forehead. He runs about like a trapped rat. A hundred hostile arms are raised against him. The crowd closes in. Again he is down in the dirt, being pummeled and kicked. He no longer stirs.
On the floor of the disabled car four strike breakers are crouching, their chins to their knees, their hands covering their faces. They do not know why the car has stopped, other than that the motorman has deserted in the face of the jeers and missiles. One jumps up, grabs the controller and turns on full power. The car is derailed by the obstruction. He and the other strike breakers dash out of the car to get away. The crowd batters them into helplessness. By and bye an ambulance come along and carries the injured men off to the hospital.
The “riot call ” brings the chief of police and a hundred of his men. They try to drive the crowd back. The mounted men force their horses upon the sidewalk and against the women and children. The crowd is urged up into the cross streets, back and back, but it trickles through the cordon of police to the scene of disorder. By this time one of the company’s repair wagons has put the car into shape again. It is returned to the barn under the care of a troop of police. The company makes known its intention to run no more cars in the district. Rain begins to fall. The crowd disperses.
For a few days no cars were run in the northeast. When they were sent out later on, they were so well ventilated by the crowd and so poorly patronized that it was a matter of curiosity to see them running.
The crowds that overflowed the streets were not organized or disciplined. They acted spontaneously. The smashing up of cars was a source of amusement rather than the consequence of resentment only against the strike breakers was there animosity shown. The crowds fraternized with the regular policemen and laughed at the state fencibles, one hundred and seventy-five of whom were called out. The people helped themselves to the buttons from off the coats of the fencibles for souvenirs, and plucked the bullets from out their belts. The presence of these “darling boys” was provocative of so much hilarity that even the mayor became sarcastic. If, on this occasion, the state fencibles did not behave like an infantry corps, they did nevertheless establish a reputation as a corps of infants.
On February 23rd, Mayor Reyburn dispatched a telegram to Governor Stuart, asking for the state constabulary, or cossacks, as they are more popularly known. Four companies of them, 158 men all told, arrived next day and remained until March 1st.
Now, the people of Philadelphia had no particular quarrel with the state constabulary. Their antipathy was confined largely to the transit company and its strike breakers. To fight against the cossacks meant to engage in bloody warfare, not with fists or bricks, but guns, and this the people were not prepared to do. Were it otherwise, the handful of Cossacks would never have left Philadelphia alive. So, aside from a drubbing administered to a few of their number, they were permitted to depart in peace.
The people refrained from patronizing the scab-manned cars and let it go at that. Without standing upon the formality of organizing a club, they began to walk to and from work. All manner of conveyances carried passengers and did a flourishing business. The director of public safety tried to put a stop to the vehicle traffic by having scores of the drivers arrested and fined, for doing a transportation business without a license. But the wagons continued to go “all the way up” or “out” or “down.” To circumvent the director, they displayed legends such as the following: “Charity Wagon,” “Free Ride,” “Union Transit.” Unnecessary to add, no one was discouraged from tendering the conductor a free will offering.
Here it may be inserted that the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company did not exert itself to any extent in this struggle. It imported strike breakers, true enough, issued conflicting statements as to its strength, and parleyed with its old employes in the hope of bribing them to return to work. It converted its car barns into stables for the horses of the constabulary and mounted police, and tendered the use of the floors of its cars to the policemen for sleeping quarters. That represents the limit of its capacity to cope with the situation.
The fight upon the car men’s union and the sympathizing public was not conducted from the offices of the company. The seat of war was at the city hall. The plans of campaign were mapped out at the desks of the mayor and director of public safety, and carried into effect through orders issued by them.
Every car contained from one to half a dozen policemen, to protect the strike breakers and assist them in learning the route. Possibly ten thousand extra policemen were sworn in altogether, recruited by the political ward heelers. Their character can readily be imagined. They were called “brownies,” and seemed to aspire to become of the hue of the “black hundreds” of Russia. Whatever other faults they may have had, they early acquired a very exasperating one of clubbing and shooting in offensive wayfarers. Of the number, three thousand or more were “plain clothes men,” who circulated among the crowd. At least two instances of dynamiting they were responsible for. To what extent they instigated disturbances cannot, of course, be ascertained. Insofar as the mayor and director were concerned, it was a fight of brute force, in which the side guilty of the greater amount of thuggery would prevail.
The local magistrates and judges were at the elbow of the company’s officials. The term “riot” was distorted out of all legal sense, while an amusing precedent was established in making it appear that the alleged act of one individual, C.O. Pratt, constituted a “conspiracy.”
It is hardly worth while to enter into a consideration of the part played in the trouble by the mayor and his underlings. Pennsylvania’s political history, and Philadelphia’s contribution to that history, are too well known to require it. Suffice to mention here that after the mayor frowned down all talk of arbitration, he called the attention of the city councils to an act of assembly of 1893, which provided a way for the adjustment of grievances between, employer and employe, by having each side select three arbiters, the common pleas court appoint three, the nine to constitute the board. And after doing that, when the men on strike offered to accept this medium, unfair to them though it was, the mayor sitting on the board of directors of the company, as a representative of the city, voted against his own proposition.
That the mayor of the city owns traction stock is denied. But is has been charged, and never refuted, that the director of public safety is a heavy holder and a heavy loser. During the course of the strike stocks tumbled headlong down, so the rage of the director can be understood.
Like most, if not all, public service corporations, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, apart from its stock manipulations and gentle manly “steals,” has been enriched by valuable franchises and other favors conferred upon it without a penny of recompense to the city. Transit and political interests have always been found together. Therefore, no stone has ever been left unturned to defend the holdings of the clique in control of the company at any particular time.
To cement the tie between the corporation and the city officials, a contract was entered into by city councils in July, 1907, whereby the company bound itself to turn over to the city all earnings above a stipulated amount; the city, in exchange, to be the guardian of the company. To insure the carrying out of the provisions of the compact, the city is entitled to three representatives on the company’s board of directors. That the city’s representatives served the company only too well, is attested by the fact that one of them has since been promoted to the vice-presidency of the company, while another openly fought the public in the strike. The mayor’s position we have already seen. On the other hand, no part of the company’s surplus has ever found its way into the city treasury.
Among the holders of large amounts of traction stock are men who either own or influence one or more of the daily papers. This explains why every editor opposed the car men, although several of them went as far as they could in antagonizing the present directors of the company. Financial jugglery even reached the stage when it was believed that the men in control aimed to throw the company into the hands of a receiver, in order to squeeze out the small investors. As many as 25,000 shares changed hands in one day’s transactions during the strike.
That the group of financiers seeking to discredit the present directorate desires not to stand in intimate relations with labor was shown later on when the president of the Central Labor Union, John J. Murphy, was arrested on the charge of “inciting to riot.” His unsophisticated friends hastened to try to procure bail from the moneyed men who had supported the reform movement, on whose ticket Murphy had twice been a candidate. But the eminently respectable reformers refused to have their names sullied by association with that of a strike leader.
One more incident might be cited here to indicate the nature of the conflict. Among those who put in a conspicuous appearance were the United Business Men’s Association, claiming to speak for 90,000 of the city’s merchants. They reported themselves to be “the bone and sinew of the community.” But they and their plea for arbitration received scant courtesy from either the company or the city officials. A delegation from the Kensington Business. Men’s Association came down to attend a session of the city councils and exercise their influence upon that recalcitrant body. They were permitted to have their picture taken in front of the city hall, but not to enter the portals of that stately edifice. In this way was it made manifest that the fight was between the real vested interests, corporate wealth, in the one camp, and labor, the small business men and all other elements of the people, in the other.
For their own part, the car men’s union, if anything, underestimated their relative strength, and guided themselves accordingly. Everyone strained himself to the utmost. The two local secretaries scarcely left headquarters, day or night, while other local officers and international officers, after attending to matters in the office during the day, were out all hours of the night and early morning, addressing meetings called for the members of a car barn, some sister union or the public.
The car men are fully aware that the company has plenty of resources, that it is strongly intrenched politically, and that the greater part of the financial burden of the fight will be borne by the city. For this reason, among others, all that the men hoped to accomplish was arbitration, arbitration that would secure for the men a fair consideration of their grievances.
At the same time, the riding public had its own complaints against the company, although it had apparently never. entertained any serious idea of having them attended to. Yet it was on the lookout for the occasion to present itself where it could manifest its displeasure at having the rate of fare increased although the service remained abominable. Furthermore, that which had been the eye-sore of the company, the big buttons worn by the members of the union, had done much to encourage a fellow feeling among the working people who daily came into contact with the motorman and conductor. So that the notion of having a sympathetic strike as a protest against the management of the company and the executives of the city, was not the extravagant conception of some dreamer. It was the expression of the desire and will of the working people of the community.
On Sunday afternoon of February 27th, two meetings were held in the halls of the United Trades Association. One consisted of the delegates to the Central Labor Union; the other of representatives from unions unaffiliated with the central body. The meetings lasted all afternoon. Every one present at those meetings—and there were a dozen international officers and several veterans of the labor movement everyone declared it to be the most inspiring meeting he had ever witnessed. There was unanimity of opinion as regards the purpose of the meeting. But the unaffiliated unions were in favor of carrying out that purpose the following Tuesday. They had to be prevailed upon to withhold making the move until Saturday.
In the anteroom were nearly a hundred newspaper men, one local paper having as many as fourteen reporters” there. After what seemed endless waiting, the union’s press committee came with the resolutions, with a list of the organizations which had participated in the meetings, and with words of greeting from unions in other cities. By relays the information was scribbled down and telephoned to the paper offices. Within a quarter of an hour the news was in type and had been telegraphed across the continent
The first general strike in America had been ordered. Philadelphia, the city that seemed until that hour to be impervious to all progressive ideas, had for once taken the lead. The sleeper had awakened!
Within the next few days special meetings were called of all unions and the question of going out on strike was put to a vote. With the exception of a few organizations bound up in “iron clad contracts,” the decision was favorable. Wednesday evening there was held a joint conference of delegates from all unions in the city, whether or not affiliated with the Central Labor Union. A proclamation was drawn up, a committee of ten empowered to take command of the situation, and the call to cease work issued for Friday midnight, March 4th.
A very curious thing happened at this juncture. The company furnished the newspapers with copies of telegrams it had received from manufacturers’ associations and citizens’ alliances throughout the country. With two exceptions, they were dated March 4th. It demonstrates only too well the concerted nature of the action of the employers. It showed that it was recognized among the ruling class that this was to be an important grapple between the forces of labor and capital.
Possibly the publication of this intelligence was calculated to dismay organized labor. In this purpose it utterly failed. At the appointed hour the general strike went into effect.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v10n10-apr-1910-ISR-gog-EP-cov.pdf