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Lessons of the Great Uprising of 1877

More than a railroad strike

Published Jan 13, 2012 2:36 AM

“Blood on the Tracks” by Cecilia Holland, Kindle edition, 79 pages, 2011

Thanks to a writer generally known for her many historical novels, there is now available a gripping account of the real-life struggle of workers in 1877 against the railroad barons — the most hated 1% of that time. As Cecilia Holland writes in “Blood on the Tracks,” this Great Upheaval “isn’t much discussed in American history classes, in civics classes, in popular literature.” She has set out to correct that.

The explosive uprising in the summer of 1877 came about after the heads of the four largest railroads held a secret meeting and conspired to cut the wages of their workers by 10 percent, even though these companies were paying hefty dividends to their shareholders.

Worker resistance to the bosses and their plans quickly drew in tens of thousands of women and men from the communities that surrounded the rail yards. Huge crowds lined the tracks as workers prevented hundreds of freight cars from moving.

When police and eventually militia were sent in to take back control of the switches, which had been blocked by the workers, they were greeted with rocks and bottles. Under intense pressure from railroad big shots to break the strike, the authorities began ordering their troops to fire on the crowds.

The casualties among both strikers and bystanders only enraged the half-starved workers even more and pitched gun battles soon took place in many areas. Just 12 years after the Civil War, many workers were military veterans and knew how to fight.

Holland explains that it was the miserable prevailing wages of the period that had brought so many desperate workers to the point of rebellion. While U.S. industry was expanding at a tremendous rate, there was also a revolution in technology going on. New machinery was eliminating jobs and skills, creating what Karl Marx had described as a “reserve army of labor” — massive unemployment that pitted worker against worker in competition for fewer jobs, thus enabling the bosses to keep wages at barely a subsistence level.

At the same time, it was a gilded age for the rich, whose fortunes were growing at warp speed.

The rebellion, which started in the Cumberland Valley of northern Virginia, quickly spread along the railroad lines to large cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis. At one point, the populace of St. Louis was so aroused that they took over the city government and declared a commune. This was undoubtedly inspired by the Paris Commune of 1870-1871, which Marx had analyzed as the first living example of what a workers’ government would look like.

To her great credit, Holland does not shy away from drawing lessons for today from this period of militant working-class struggle.

“The parallels between 1877 and 2011,” she writes, “are too obvious to need much outlining. The convulsions in the economy, the rise of new technology, the displacement of workers, the sudden systematic enrichment of a very small number of people while the majority sees its prospects flat or dwindling, the sense among many that the government belongs to the bosses and therefore won’t help ordinary people, all these things have led to the same kind of polarization.”

Holland does not write as a Marxist nor even as an open partisan in the class struggle. But she sheds great light on the real history of class relations in the United States and the inevitable effect of capitalism’s intensifying exploitation of the workers.

While this book has not been published in a print edition, it is available from Amazon as a Kindle Single for 99 cents. (Good news for the 99%!) Even if you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the eBook in a MOBI format and read it on a computer or other devices. Do a Google search for free MOBI-reading software.

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