On July 1, 1922, unionized workers at the Auburn Yard, a center of freight traffic and equipment maintenance for the Northern Pacific Railway on the West Coast, begin a seven-month strike that will shape the relationship between railway labor and company executives for decades to come. At the same time, shifts in social norms, a World War, and a massive national recession bring other changes to the Yard, including its first female employees and the eight-hour workday.
War in Europe, Labor Battles at Home
As World War I raged across Europe in 1914, industries in the United States began ramping their production into high gear. The United States government would not send troops to fight in World War I until 1917, but this didn't stop manufacturers and railways from staying busy transporting supplies and raw materials to coastal ports to be sold to allies in need of weapons, fuel, machinery, food, and other vital supplies.
This increase in demand for goods put a deep strain on the nation's railroads, which were the fastest form of long-range freight transportation available at the time. This strain was particularly felt at the western freight terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway at Auburn. The Auburn Yard had opened in April 1913 to initially slower-than-expected business, but traffic had increased substantially by 1916. In May 1916, the Yard handled 47,000 cars alone.
During this uptick in work, labor unions in the U.S. were still advocating for an eight-hour workday. The eight-hour day movement had existed since before the Civil War, and by 1915 an eight-hour day was the standard in most industries -- but not yet in the railroad sector. In an argument published in the Auburn Globe-Republican in April 1916, railway labor representatives wrote that the 8 million workers they represented deserved the same protections as industrial workers in other fields, including overtime pay for required work taking more than eight hours. Representatives of railway executives argued that it would be impossible to transition the rail industry from expected 10-hour days to eight-hours ones, and lazy workers were just trying to force a wage increase without doing additional work.
The argument that Northern Pacific workers were lazy was belied by business practices of the railway itself – even with 10-hour work days, they had massive overtime bills on their hands trying to deal with the huge amount of freight being transported. The railroad's freight-car load had exceeded the number of locomotive engines they had to pull the cars. To stay in business, the Northern Pacific had to do something to increase its freight capacity without losing all of its income to labor costs and foreign car fees.
New equipment could help relieve some of the problem. The same month, Northern Pacific announced it would buy 25 new locomotives for use exclusively on its western lines. An increased focus on repairing existing freight cars and keeping them in service as long as possible would keep foreign cars fees to a minimum. By April, 138 employees at the Auburn Yard who worked the roundhouse and on the freight car repair tracks, called "rip track," were working mandatory 10-hour days, six days a week, to keep up with the workload.
Increasing worker hours was seen by executives as an effective way to keep costs down, but without overtime and other benefits employee retention under these extreme work conditions with low pay was difficult. For months, the yard's employees had been leaving for higher pay elsewhere. Those who could not find work outside agitated for higher wages. The crew assigned to re-open the local gravel pit staged a strike. The dozen or so men demanded a 30-cent a day raise to $2.20. Alas, no one in Auburn had the authority to grant such a request. Strikers found themselves thrown off the property and hiring for their replacements began. A similar incident occurred on a steel gang re-laying rail in the yard. Fifty men, all Italian immigrants, went on strike when their foreman fired one of their number and refused to reinstate the man. Again, the striking men were let go and the railway went looking for fresh workers.
At the same time these two groups were fired in Auburn, Northern Pacific officials at their St. Paul, Minnesota, headquarters announced that all section crews, hostlers, engine wipers, oilers, coal dock workers, and general laborers would now be paid $2 per day. In September 1916, under pressure of a national strike that would cause rail traffic to grind to a halt, Congress passed the Adamson Act regulating the working hours of railroad laborers, finally granting them the protection of an eight-hour standard workday. Unfortunately for the Northern Pacific, the 50 fired strikers now might never be replaced. Following the sinking of the Lusitania, the U.S. entered World War I, and on June 5, 1917, conscription began for all men aged 21 to 30 (to be expanded to men up to age 45 in 1918).
World War I Hits the States
America's entry into World War I exacerbated the railroads' already critical shortage of workers. Major construction projects were halted due to lack of labor, and the labor situation worsened as more and more rail workers chose to enlist rather than work for lower wages at the rail yard.
On May 2, 1917, Puget Sound Division Superintendent J. J. McCullough, the official in charge of overseeing operations at the Auburn Yard among other Puget Sound facilities, issued a circular describing what was to be done to remedy the labor crisis: "All employing officers are to make full use of female help in offices and elsewhere where women can do the work instead of male employees. To that end present employees are requested to present applications from their female relatives and in all vacancies and new positions to male applicants are to be employed when female help can be obtained to do the work required: callers, clerks, checkers, time keepers, all office and desk work, or any other work women can do and are willing to do" ("Rairoad News ..."). It was quite a bombshell. The Superintendent ended with another. "Female employees are to receive the same salary and the same working conditions such as promotions, now given to males and are to be given any assistance to enable them to become familiar with the duties they assume" ("Railroad News ...").
At the Northern Pacific's other major shop in South Tacoma, the shop men did not wait long to voice their disapproval, issuing a statement which read in part: "There is no shortage of men – if the railway would pay a living wage." The employment of women was simply another greedy capitalist plot. "A sinister attempt to bring down the existing wage scales and lower the standard of living of American wage workers." They closed with a statement that was probably the crux of the matter, at least as they saw it. "Such a course must inevitably degrade and debase the homelife of the nation and wreck its domestic ideals" ("Railroad News ...").
At the Auburn Yard, workers seemed to support the change. Anna Morgan and Mrs. R. H. Keene became the first woman employed at the yard, both hired on within days of the new edict. Foreman Frank Windley hired his daughter Bessy to be his clerk while she was on her summer break from school. However angry as the men at the South Tacoma yard may have been, they did not strike and no individual was ever reported to have left the railway because of the new policy allowing women into the workforce. Soon all other issues faded before the overwhelming task of keeping trains moving over the road during wartime.
In May 1917, as the wheat harvest began coming in, the yard set a new upper limit on the total number of cars handled in 24 hours. More than 2,000 cars flew through on May 28, as many as had been handled in the preceding two weeks. June 1 the Globe Republican predicted that, "May's showing in all departments will be a record breaker by big odds ... Nothing short of death or serious sickness will get a man a leave of absence now-a-days" ("Railroad News ..."). Through June, traffic continued to skyrocket. I. P. Iversen, when asked how the yard was doing by the Globe Republican's reporter on July 6, replied "I've got 20 minutes to do an hour's work in, so you'll have to excuse me. Come around after the War is over and I'll visit with you" ("Railroad News ...").
On December 28 came news that the upper management of the railroad had been dreading, but workers looked forward to: For the duration of the war, American railroads would be nationalized and under the control of the United States Railroad Administration (USRA). Nationalization stabilized better wages and work hours, ordered that women workers and Black workers be paid the same as their white male counterparts, and created better cooperation among railroads that led to more efficient shipping of freight across the country. Increased freight efficiency supported the wartime economic boom in industries such as timber, agriculture, and shipbuilding, lifting the entire Puget Sound economy and making Washington a true industrial power base.
The War Ends
However, the economic bubble burst nearly as soon as the war ended. Government contracts were quickly canceled, purchases from overseas dried up, and the armed services began demobilizing. Under these conditions, the American economy quickly plunged into a downward spiral from which it would not recover until 1923. American workers, especially union members, were faced with a fight to hold on to their elevated wartime wages, and unauthorized "wildcat" strikes took place throughout the railroad system in 1919 and 1920. Railroad nationalization ended March 1, 1920, when the USRA returned all railroads to their former owners and, in the case of the Auburn Yard, to their former business practices as well.
The first attack on the wartime wage rates came in the spring: a ten-cent-an-hour reduction for employees of all American railroads. In one fell swoop, the Northern Pacific's annual payroll was reduced by $400,000. In less than a month's time, the rumors of a strike began. Rate increases aimed at providing raises for rail workers were approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission in August 1920. The raises helped to soothe union members and stave off a strike, even as the public experienced a 35 percent increase in passenger train fares. At the same time, the continuing growth of freight traffic had some workers at the Auburn Yard working nine hours days, seven days a week (with overtime, now). Extra money in the pockets of workers and the continued growth of the economy improved worker's outlook on the industry.
For nearly a year, the prospect of steady work seemed to keep things out of strike territory. It was abetted by voices from within the worker's ranks, voices sounding threats against picket lines. Nationally, Trainmen's Union president W. G. Lee asked his members to consider concessions they had won during the war. Seeming to forget how close they came to a strike in 1920, Northern Pacific executives announced a 12 percent wage decrease across the board, instituted unpopular rules changes to overtime calculations and other operations, and promised more wage cuts in November. Calls for a strike were almost instantly renewed.
Strike rumors took place against a backdrop of national economic recession. Few positions were available for workers as the manufacturing sector continued its post-war contraction. Any walking off the job would join the ranks of 5 million unemployed workers. Locally, Auburn mayor and NP conductor O. P. Bertsch was worried. "There will be bread lines galore during the coming winter in the middle west" ("Bertsch Says ...").
Despite these concerns, members of the various national shop unions voted by almost 7 to 1 to strike. The only question seemed to be when, and which other unions would follow the shopmen's lead. Negotiations went on well into October. Exacerbating the problem, Northern Pacific president Charles Connelly publicly bragged about the company's "earnings showing a marked increase over the last three months." A walk-out appeared imminent. But instead of picket lines, the unions prevailed. By October 28, 1921, the strike threat had worked and management conceded an extra hour of paid work on Saturday, making a six-day, eight-hour-a-day work week. The victory was short-lived, however – no amount of union negotiating would be able to shield the Northern Pacific yard workers from the ripple effects of a nationwide recession.
Recession and Strike
Starting in December, against a of backdrop destructive flooding, other nearby railways saw massive layoffs. Before Christmas 1921, the Milwaukee Railroad temporarily laid off 400 shop workers and 120 clerks, half its available force in Tacoma. Auburn escaped massive cuts in January, losing fewer than 50 employees in the whole Puget Sound division of the Northern Pacific and having all employee workweeks cut from six days to five. In February, the Great Northern's massive Hillyard shops in Spokane were declared closed for six weeks, putting 500 people out of work, and the Milwaukee layoffs became permanent. In March, Northern Pacific began to stockpile Roslyn coal in Auburn in anticipation of a national miner's strike. Work stoppages due to this strike cost an additional 19 jobs at the Yard. The layoffs felt extra cruel when they happened while rumors of the car-repair facilities at Tacoma being moved to Auburn spread through the community, rumors that would not be officially quashed until the end of March.
In the summer of 1922 talk of another strike began. Around the country, railroad unions became fed up with the slide toward pre-war wages. Eleven of the 16 shop unions voted for a walk out, this time with a definite date of July 1. The local paper reported the news nonchalantly: on Page 5 the headline read, "Strike Not Expected Here." Though how the editor, the Northern Pacific, or anyone else planned to keep Auburn's union members out of the strike went unmentioned.
July 1, a Saturday, began with 138 shop employees staying off the job. The paper noted that two workers showed up for work, found that this time the strike was indeed on, and left. All that remained were a handful of managers, including Division Superintendent J. J. McCullough and Car Foreman Frank Windley, along with a cadre of 24 special agents, the police force of the Auburn Yard. Bridge and Building Inspector Jim Meacham found himself pressed into service as a car inspector, though only for a day. He caught his finger on a brake shoe and was sent home to recuperate. The shopmen, the Globe-Republican reported, hoped to be back on the job in a few days.
Things looked good for the strikers initially. At the Northern Pacific's South Tacoma shops only seven of 1,300 workers stayed on. The general chairman of the NP's Federated Shop Crafts in St. Paul reported a whopping 98 percent of his members were out on strike system wide. Later that July, another 23 roundhouse employees, mostly engine wipers, fire builders, and assorted helpers, those who could least afford the strike's burdens, walked out as well. The immediate effects of the strike could be seen at the Auburn roundhouse, where five engines were already laid up due to lack of workers to run them. Twenty brakemen and six chain-gang crews soon found themselves on layoff.
Amid all this economic and labor adversity, Northern Pacific upper management resolved to break the unions where they stood, announcing that workers not immediately returning to their jobs faced losing all seniority and pension rights. With 5 million unemployed workers hungry for jobs, the outcome of the strike no longer looked so rosy for the striking workers.
Officials on both sides of the strike used paid advertising in the Auburn newspaper to make their case to the community. July 21 saw a statement from E. H. Fitzgerald, president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks: The Government Board overseeing railroad wages, in direct violation of Congressional law which mandated just and reasonable wages, allowed railroads to pay their clerks from 8 to 40 percent less than other industries; less, in fact, than the Federal Government itself. The new wage rate agreed upon by the board was, in some cases, under half the amount needed to provide the minimum standard of living endorsed by the Department of Labor. While the clerks made out poorly with 30 percent less than the minimum, other crafts represented by the same union managed to do even worse. Truckers would be making 51 percent less, common laborers 56 percent less.
The Northern Pacific's statement on July 28 was more direct. In simple, plain type, the railway advertised for men, lots of men, in lots of trades, at 47 to 75 cents an hour, depending on the job and skills. Work over eight hours paid time and a half. The only other item mentioned was the fact that, "A Strike now exists on the Northern Pacific Railway." St. Paul let strikers know their intentions in a less-than-subtle manner by announcing the NP would purchase 1,000 new 50-ton box cars, 250 stock cars, and 70 express refrigerators. Even with a strike, a recession, and the strain of world war, the railway was saying it could find and pay new workers and it would still have more than enough capital to purchase millions of dollars of new equipment. The message was clear: There would be no bargaining.
Within days of the NP's call for men, the yard began to come back to life. Early August saw 100 men at work in the picketed yards, nine chain-gang crews were back on, and six eastbound trains were making their way over the hill each day. To avoid trouble, the scabs were housed on the premises; a shantytown of ragged housing grew up around the shops. By the middle of August, the local courts moved against the strikers; a temporary restraining order forced them down to just one picket at a time at each point of entrance and exit from the yard. Strikers fought back by setting up a "Rogue's Gallery," a photo-covered billboard of scabs who dared to cross the picket line.
While the shanties and the restraining order may have helped to reduce tensions, it did not eliminate them. Dan Taylor, a switchman who moved six cars instead of 16 as yardmaster Grover C. Stacey had requested, wound up in such a quarrel over the misunderstanding that the yardmaster struck him. After going home for a short while, Taylor returned to the yard, drunk and armed, to settle the score. Entering the yard office, he and Stacey grappled, the result being bullets through both lungs and the right shoulder of the 35-year-old yardmaster. Taylor fled the scene, only to kill himself before he could be arrested. Stacey was sent to the local hospital to recover from his wounds. This would be the only violent incident reported during the strike in Auburn.
In contrast to the violence between those staying on the job, those outside the yard found themselves actively supported by non-railroaders of their town. A rally and dance was thrown for the strikers in August. Auburn's Mission Theater ran ads for a week before all their features, the Auburn Military Band and Rooney's Orchestra donated their musical talents, and the Auburn Music House chipped in with a piano. Local builders Colby & Dickinson put together the orchestra platform, while lights were provided by the Parks Electric Co. Finally, to everyone's pleasure in the middle of a very long summer, Auburn Ice Cream Co. donated refreshments. Here, at a time when violence had come to town, and the promise that the railway would hold out longer than the strikers could, the citizens of Auburn rallied around their union members. It was to be their last good news.
September came and went without a settlement, as did October. Striking workers who resided in Lester were forced from their homes, which were owned by the Northern Pacific Railway along with the rest of the company town. The only real news to report was that St. Paul was at it again, announcing in late October that the Northern Pacific would purchase 1,000 automobile boxcars, 250 convertible carriers, 250 gondola coal cars, and 70 more express refrigerator cars. The price tag was $4 million. In the same edition ran an article on the visit of St. Paul officials to Auburn. Vice-President Rapelje's message was straightforward and very clear: "There is no settlement contemplated and there will be none" ("Strikers Ordered Off ...").
As the cold and 1923 closed in, the local officers had trouble keeping their members together. The word from the shops was that strikers would be taken back as vacancies occurred. Newly elected local Chairman Fred Haas tried to make it clear that both locally and nationally, the strike was still on. They were going to stay out, he said "... until a satisfactory agreement has been made." But such an agreement would not come in 1922, or any year.
The Strike Ends
It may never be known whether witnessing more huge outlays for equipment, seeing the recovery of the national economy, or just the long months without incomes convinced the unions to end the strike. Whatever it was, they were a stubborn enough lot that they stayed out another month before finally admitting defeat. On February 13, 1923, the Chairman of the NP's Federated Shop Crafts, A. R. Henning, called off the strike from St. Paul. He closed the announcement by thanking all who had supported the unions and their members. In Auburn, as the crews went back, the symbols of the strike were slowly torn down. The strike breaker's shanties were converted to storage space, though not before the loyal union men had the small pleasure of seeing the Northern Pacific's own special agents serve eviction notices to the scabs still living in them. Life, for a time, would return to normal.
The strikers had been out seven and a half grueling months, from blazing summer to frigid winter, in the midst of a national recession. They lost more than they gained: years of seniority rights, pensions, more than half a year's income, in addition to having their very livelihoods washed away in the turmoil. Their unions, bankrupted in the fight, failed to achieve any of their goals and in the process saw their own power destroyed.
The Northern Pacific came through the ordeal unscathed. After bringing in new crews at lower pay the NP rode out the recession and the unions. Those who had broken with their unions or crossed the picket lines found themselves in the best of all worlds with steady incomes and instant seniority. For decades after the strike, shop foremen's seniority dates on the NP would be emblazoned with that tumultuous year: 1922.