The New Orleans General Strike lasted five days and completely shut down what was then American’s 12th largest city. The strike involved 25,000 workers and is considered the first general strike to include skilled, unskilled, black, and white workers. It’s this final distinction – the first biracial general strike – that makes the strike stand out as worthy of discussion so lessons can be learned for today’s struggles.
A grand narrative
The 19th century is full of many important events that must be understood as part of a larger narrative – the cementing of capitalism as the dominant economic system in the world and the attempts of one class to maintain control over – and extract profits from – another class. But this is a much larger topic for another time. Our scope of focus must be narrowed to the United States and finally to the city of New Orleans in 1892.
But no event can be understood in isolation. Therefore some important points about what was going through the minds of capitalists and workers at the time the strike are needed. The last half of the 19th century was a period of particularly intense class conflict, as capitalists looked to control markets at home and abroad using the armed wing of the state, and workers began to unionize and fight back.
Imperialism and war
The signing of the Monroe Doctrine ushered in U.S. imperialism – new markets would be opened and necessary resources extracted using military force. (This was done over 55 times between the Mexican-American war in 1847 and the Spanish-American War in 1898). The end of the Civil War marked the fall of the Southern slave economy and the cementing into place of the Northern industrial capitalist economy. A series of economic crisis – at least 13 between 1830s and 90s – intensified the crisis of capitalism. In 1890 the military killed 150 Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee and declared American frontier officially closed.
Strikes and crisis
Working class consciousness as seen through strike activity was quite high: From 1881-1884, the number of strikes and lockouts averaged less than 500 and involved on average 150,000 workers a year. In 1885, there were 700 strikes involving 250,000 total workers. One year later, there were 1,400 strikes involving 600,000 workers.
Notable strike and movements towards the end of the century included: the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877, lasting 45 days and conjuring fears in the minds of bosses of a Paris Commune (1871) situation in North America; the Great Railroad Strikes of 1886, which involved 200,000 workers across multiple states; the fight for an 8-hour workday and the first May Day, in which 500,000 workers – about 1 out of every 120 people in the U.S. – went on strike; the first International May Day in 1890 saw workers unite across Europe, Chile, Cuba, and Peru, and prompted Engels to write, “The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realize that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united. If only Marx were with me to see it with his own eyes!”
In class societies, any tactic will be used to divide masses and turn them against one another. “The logic of ‘race as a social construct,'” wrote historian Theodore W. Allen, “must be tightened and the focus sharpen…the ‘white race’ must be understood, not simply as a social construct, bust as a ruling class social control formation.” As Allen’s research confirms, is impossible to understand the history of capitalism in the U.S. without understanding the history of racism, not only to justify slavery and create divisions between class solidarity, but also its role in the “opening” of the frontier to capitalists, and waging wars of economic important in Mexico, Cuba, and across the globe.
The Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were the two largest unions in the country by 1892, and both were a mixed bag when it came to organizing and actively including black workers. The Knights of Labor, for example, had integrated assemblies in the north and segregated assemblies in the south. Up to and during the general strike, the New Orleans elite tried repeatedly to divide white and black workers using racist appeals.
The General Strike
All the history presented above was present – consciously and unconsciously – in the hearts and minds of workers and bosses during and leading up to the events of November 9. In May of 1892, NO streetcar operators won a closed shop and a shorter workday (12 instead of 16 hours). This victory set off a chain reaction ending in the formation of the Triple Alliance – a multiracial organization of the Teamsters, the Scalesmen, and the Packers – and a new strike for a 10-hour workday and overtime pay. The Triple Alliance was backed by the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council and its 30,000 members. In response, bosses used carrot and stick tactics to break the strike. The stick include a threat to send in the national guard. The carrot included a deal to sign a contract with only the two mostly white members of the Triple Alliance – the Scalesmen and Packers. In so doing, the bosses hoped white workers would accept the “poison bait” of white skin privilege. The newspapers also ran stories of “mobs of brutal Negro Strikers…beating up all who attempt to interfere with them,” and seeking to “take over the city” so as to attack white women and children.
But the strikers would not be divided along racial lines. The contract was turned down, and the Scalesmen and Packers voted to stay on strike until the Teamsters were offered a contract on the same terms. Now, unions within the Amalgamated Council – including the Cotton Screwmen (those who stowed and packed cotton bales into the holds of ships), the Cotton Yardmen, the Printers, the Boiler Makers, and the Car Driver’s Union – began calling for a general strike to demand shorter hours, increased pay, a union shop, and recognition of the union.
The General Strike began on November 8 and involved 48 unions and 25,000 union members, or half the city’s workforce. The streetcars stopped running. The natural gas supply ran empty and the electrical grid stopped working, sending the city into darkness. The flow of food and beverages stopped. Construction, printing, street cleaning, and firefighting services halted. The 12th largest city in the country was paralyzed.
The mayor declared martial law and the governor sent in the state militia. But the troops left after a day because the descriptions of chaos and anarchy put forward by the media and bosses were fictitious. In fact the striker may have had the rest of the city on their side, as a call by the mayor for law enforcement personal drew only 59 volunteers.
On November 12, the bosses, represented by the Board of Trade, agreed to deals with black and white union leaders, including a 10-hour day and overtime pay, but not the union shop or recognition of the Triple Alliance.
Views are mixed as to what extent the General Strike can be called a “success.” Chris Mahin writes, “The failure of the strikers to secure the closed shop ultimately undermined their other gains. Within a year, the Panic of 1893 would mark the beginning of the 19th century’s worst economic crisis, producing high unemployment and deep wage cuts for African-Americans and whites alike. The solidarity across color lines displayed in 1892 was soon replaced by bitter hostility as wages plunged and many white dockworkers in New Orleans fought to deny African-American workers access to the few good jobs available.”
Howard Zinn wrote this about the closing of the 19th century:
In the year 1877, the signals were given for the rest of the century: the blacks would be put back; the strikes of the white workers would not be tolerated; the industrial and political elites of North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. they would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression – a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth
Given this context, the ability of workers to organize themselves and stay united across racial lines in one of the most racist areas of a deeply racist country, and despite attacks from the press and the threat of violence from the state, is remarkable.
The past is present
The history of class struggle is intentionally hidden from the public. Likewise for instances of racial solidarity (Fred Hampton, for example, was murdered for doing just that with the Rainbow Coalition). Histories of both – of working class blacks and white struggling together as in the New Orleans General Strike – is anathema to social control (see also the Brotherhood of Timber Workers). Today, as labor union leaders shake hands with the president while national right-to-work legislation is being drafted, workers must resist all divisions based on anything but class interests.