Artist: Henry Lipkis
Storyteller: Leon A. Waters, Chairperson, Louisiana Museum of African American History
125 years ago, one of the greatest united strikes happened here in New Orleans – the General Strike of 1892. The general strike grew out of the labor movement struggles for improved economic well-being and Black peoples’ continued struggles for equality and freedom.
1892 was an active year of class struggle. Two all-U.S.A. labor organizations were founded: the International Longshoremen Association and the International Seamen Union. On June 30, 1892, a major steel strike was launched in Homestead, Pennsylvania. The strike was violently defeated by Pinkerton guards with several strikers and guards killed. In New Orleans, May, 1892, the streetcar drivers struck for shorter working hours and a closed shop. They won. Labor hours were reduced from 16 hours to 10 hours. Workers could now be unionized. On June 7, 1892, Homer A. Plessy and the Citizens Committee initiated their fight for equality and freedom against the Segregated Railroad Car Act at the railroad depot located then at Press and Royal Streets. This action was later followed by an important strike in October.
The strike in October was organized by three key unions that formed a partnership – the Triple Alliance. The three unions were the white Scalesmen and Packers unions and the Black Teamsters. Scalesmen and Packers were skilled laborers. Scalesmen’s labor was that of weighing commodities, a function that determined the value, the exchange value or selling price of a commodity. Packers were those laborers who loaded or ‘packed’ commodities for shipment on vessels such as boats, trains or other moving vehicles. Packers had specific tools to pack or ‘screw’ the commodities in place. Teamsters were those laborers considered not as skilled as scalesmen and packers. Teamsters moved commodities by carriages, wagons, drays (carts) as drivers and general laborers.
On October 24, these three unions went on strike for a shorter work day (10-hour day), overtime pay for after 60 hours and a union shop. There were between two to three thousand workers on strike. The city’s employing class (banks, stevedores, foundries, hotels, merchants, etc.) was struck with terror. Less than 30 years after the end of the Civil War, and with the counterrevolution of Reconstruction, Black and white workers united to walk out for joint demands.
The exploiter and oppressor social class of owners and bosses organized an all-out strike-breaking assault. Their allies consisted of the bosses of the four railroads that entered the city, and also the bosses of cotton, sugar, and rice commodity exchanges. They amassed a huge strike-breaking and terror fund. The New Orleans Board of Trade, located at 316 Magazine Street, represented the interests of this social class of owners and bosses. The Board of Trade would make decisions for them.
The New Orleans Board of Trade refused to recognize the Triple Alliance. That summer, the workers had organized a city-wide united front called the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council. This form of organization was a clever idea designed to pursue a specific form of struggle. The Council was located at 87 Exchange Alley next door to where today’s Marriott Hotel, 555 Canal Street, is located. The council represented the widely exploited and most oppressed sections of the community. The purpose of this council was to provide solidarity and aid to the workers’ struggles. The more ‘enlightened’ or ‘conscious’ workers knew that the strike’s outcome would affect the wages and conditions of all workers. In preparing for the fight, the workers raised $7,000. As part of their strike-breaking assault, the bosses designed a tactical campaign of ‘divide and conquer’.
Initially, the Board of Trade said that they would negotiate and sign only with the Scalesmen and Packers union and not with the Teamsters. Second, the newspapers, the Times Democrat, the Daily States, and others popularized an anti-Black sentiment. Headlines appeared agitating “Negroes Attack White Men”. Stories reported “mobs of brutal Negro strikers” running through the streets “beating up all who attempted to interfere with them”. The newspapers collaborated with the Board of Trade. The papers included the Daily Picayune, Daily City Item, New Orleans Mascot, the french written New Orleans Bee, and the german written Tag Deutsche Zeitung. The aims of these tactics were to appeal to white supremacy and undermine class unity. The poisonous lies these papers printed did affect the workers. Wavering and vacillation appeared in the ranks of the Scalesmen and the Packers union. But conscious white workers, members of the radical Knights of Labor, struggled and argued with their class brothers. They agitated that the Black workers were not their real enemy but instead their class brothers. This struggle inside the workers’ movement enabled the workers to see and embrace their true class interests. The ‘enlightened’ labor leaders prevailed amongst their white brethren. Consequently, the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council demanded that there be negotiation with the three unions (the two whites and one black) or no negotiation at all.
The Board of Trade refused. The Board then demanded that everybody return to work, and that bargaining would be considered after everbody returned to work.
Refusing to submit to threats or fear, the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council escalated the fight and called for a general strike on November 8. Over 25,000 workers, of African, Caribbean, Spanish, French and other European descent that also included 45 locals responded to the call. More than half the city’s workforce struck. Carpenters, joiners, warehousemen, screwmen, coopers, coachmen, musicians, freight handlers, horseshoers, grain shovelers, plasterers, piledrivers, pressmen, tinners, drivers, cotton men, gas and electric workers united and struck together. When night fell, New Orleans economy was further paralyzed. Without utility workers, the city was in darkness. Not a ship nor boat moved. Not one dray nor delivery carriage operated. Not a hotel worker greeted a guest. Not a cigar rolled. The economy had been halted. This was the first time in U.S. history that Black and white workers carried out a general strike together!
Needless to say, the owners and the bosses of capital were furious. They did not give up, however. The Board of Trade offered ‘special higher wages’ for anyone or any scab to come forward. With a population of 100,000 people in New Orleans, only 59 people stepped forward. Calls were made for scab labor to come from Birmingham and Mobile, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Galveston, Texas, but many prospects declined to come. The owners and bosses cried to end the ‘anarchy’. They tried to get their managers and supervisory personnel to do the work. But their numbers were few. They then told Governor Murphy Foster that they would pay the militia to do the work that the strikers refused to do. Hence, they demanded that Foster send the militia to end the strike. Foster did send soldiers. But the strikers were so well organized that the state militia was made useless. The militia could not move or transport any commodity, and more importantly, could not break the strike.
After three days, the Board of Trade surrendered to most of the strikers’ demands. They got a shorter work day. They got a 25% wage increase. Years later, the government’s legal suits against the strike leaders were eventually dropped. There were some gains made in the working conditions. But they did not win the closed shop which was full recognition of their unions.
Shamefully, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) – the only all-U.S.A. labor federation at that time did not follow up this historic victory but continued to organize all-white crafts. Because of the stand and actions of the AFL, the AFL contributed greatly to the shops remaining a haven of white supremacy, low wages, and non-union labor. In time, the millionaire owners and bosses were able to re-divide the workers and regain what they lost.
There were some important lessons and gains made. The strike demonstrated the power of the workers. The strike demonstrated that gains can be made and won when ‘proper leadership and proper organization’ are in place.