Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Union Advocate newspaper as part of its centennial series in 1997.
In the spring of 1889, citizens of Minneapolis and St. Paul were greeted by a new and strange sight. The streetcars, which had been stopped during the past week's strike, were running again in some neighborhoods. The drivers, however, were new. Dressed in cowboy shirts and hats, with revolvers in plain sight, the new drivers took to the streetcars in front of the men they were sent to replace. But few of the cowboy drivers had experience wielding the reins of the horse cars and none had ever driven the coal engines of the new lines. They had few passengers. When they left the cars for lunch, the cowboys were surrounded by hostile crowds in restaurants. The heroes of the plains were distinctly villains in the Twin Cities.
The use of cowboy drivers was only one of the ways in which the cities' street railway sought to break the first major transit strike in the Twin Cities. It was, perhaps, the most colorful extension of the "war against labor," as local workingmen called it, that employers waged in the late 1800s. The strike began in early April of 1889, when the head of the street railway company, Thomas Lowry, saw an opportunity to break the streetcar drivers' union. He instituted a severe wage cut and posted an ironclad pledge in the car barns prohibiting membership in the already existing union. Almost immediately, the nearly 1,500 street railway employees in the Twin Cities stopped work or refused to drive the streetcars. Ridership immediately dropped to almost nothing and the Knights of Labor began a petition drive to force Lowry to either negotiate with the union or give up the streetcar franchise.
If workers left work to protest the wage cuts of "King Lowry," thousands of men and women from the community supported the strike for different reasons. Lowry and his company had changed the landscape of Minneapolis and St. Paul in ways that affected everyone's lives. Noisy, dangerous streetcars invaded neighborhoods and they caused injury and even death to bystanders. The extension of streetcar lines drove up prices on real estate and made housing more expensive for working families. Most of all, Lowry had taken a public trust, ownership of public transport, and abused his powers. Passengers now had to walk to work or take hastily organized passenger buses to their destinations. Inconvenience, the social and economic cost of streetcar lines, a violation of public trust and the economic injustice toward streetcar workers fueled support for the strike on a daily basis.
Influential in politics, Lowry had counted on support in the mayor's office and on the police force to keep the streetcars operating. Once the strike began, however, it was hard to control public opinion or action. Most citizens stayed away from the streetcars. Women in groups tried to persuade non-striking drivers to leave work. Other men and women held public protests in neighborhoods and attended large public gatherings in support of the strike. Crowds not only shouted "scab" and "bread stealer" at the cars but threw stones, eggs and bricks at them. They placed paper cups and torpedoes on the rails, piled timbers on them and unhitched horses. On Easter Sunday, working men and women took to the streets to oppose the new attempts to run the streetcars with police escorts. In one neighborhood in Minneapolis, they tore up street railway tracks. Police began to arrest anyone on the streets in the troubled neighborhood.
The level of violence and police intimidation on Easter Sunday led many streetcar drivers to go back to work. The street railway company openly discriminated against union members and only some of the veteran drivers were re-hired after the strike. The city's labor leaders hoped that the petition drive and an effort to begin a cooperative horse-drawn bus company would drive Lowry into new negotiations. The cooperative comapny went bankrupt in December of 1889 and the petition was killed in city hall, where it was burned in the basement, according to reporter Eva McDonald. The Knights of Labor would continue to jockey for position in the new local labor movement, but the streetcar strike was their last hurrah. After the strike, the narrower craft-based unions would carry the day in local labor struggles.
Questioning company control
In the streetcar strike of 1889, the issues of public ownership of transit lines, of company control over unions, of police intervention and of community support emerged in a new light. More than 10,000 Minneapolis citizens and an untold number of St. Paul residents signed petitions to revoke the franchise of street railway head, Thomas Lowry. But private property and Lowry's long association with city building seemed to dictate the cooperation of the police in controlling the strike. At the same time, public opinion and action were mobilized at a higher level than ever before in the Twin Cities. In the days preceding Easter Sunday, that voice seemed to be winning the day.
What was it about the strike that seemed to coalesce public support? The intervention of replacement workers, dressed in garb of cowboys or not, played a large role. Despite their fancy uniforms, most citizens perceived the cowboy-scabs to be simple thugs, brought in to break the strike. Moreover, the cowboy image enraged citizens. Everyone knew that "real" cowboys would not stand for Tom Lowry's dictatorship. As Bronco John Sullivan declared of the scab drivers, "there wasn't a genuine cowboy in the crowd." Cowboys, he asserted, "don't go around taking another man's job from him. Cowboys are honest, hardworking men, and they wouldn't do what this crowd have done for all the money in town." Nor did they "come into civilization carrying their guns and looking for a fight." Rather, cowboys like Bronco John "want justice done to the boys." For a window of time in 1889, the mass of Minneapolis and St. Paul citizens echoed that sentiment in words and deeds.
Elizabeth Faue is an associate professor of labor history at Wayne State University in Detroit. She has written extensively on the labor movement in the Twin Cities in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of this century.