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Tue, 11.08.1892

The New Orleans General Strike Occurs

Port of New Orleans, 1892

*On this date, in 1892, the New Orleans general strike occurred. This general strike began despite appeals to racial hatred, and Black and white workers remained united. The general strike ended on November 12, with unions gaining most of their original demands. Early that year, streetcar conductors in New Orleans won a shorter workday and the preferential closed shop. This victory drove many New Orleans workers to seek assistance from the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

As many as 30 new labor unions had been organized in the city before the summer of 1892; by late summer, 49 unions belonged to the AFL. The unions established a central labor council known as the Workingmen's Amalgamated Council that represented more than 20,000 workers. Three racially integrated unions, the Teamsters, the Salesmen, and the Packers, made up what came to be called the "Triple Alliance." Many of the workers belonging to the unions of the Triple Alliance were Black.

On October 24, 1892, between 2,000 and 3,000 members of the Triple Alliance struck to win a 10-hour workday, overtime pay, and the preferential union shop. The Amalgamated Council wholeheartedly supported them. The New Orleans Board of Trade, representing financial and commercial interests, appointed a committee to make decisions for the employers. The four main railways that served the city and the large cotton, sugar, and rice commodity exchanges pledged their support for the Board of Trade. They helped raise a defense fund and asked the state governor to send in the militia to help break the strike.

No negotiations took place during the first week. Employers used race-based appeals to divide the workers and turn the public against the strikers. The board of trade announced it would sign contracts agreeing to the terms but only with the white-dominated Salesmen and Packers unions. The Board of Trade refused to sign any contract with the Black-dominated Teamsters. The Board of Trade and the city's newspapers also began a campaign to create public hysteria. The newspapers ran lurid accounts of "mobs of brutal Negro strikers" rampaging through the streets, of Black unionists "beating up all who attempted to interfere with them," and repeated accounts of crowds of Blacks assaulting lone white men and women.

The striking workers refused to break ranks along racial lines. Many Scalesmen and Packers unions passed resolutions affirming their commitment to stay out until the employers had signed a contract with the Teamsters on the same terms offered to other unions. Members of other unions began to call for a general strike to support the Triple Alliance.  Many meetings were held, during which sentiment proved so strong that a majority of the unions belonging to the Amalgamated Council voted in favor of a resolution calling for a general strike. A Committee of Five was formed to lead the general strike.  Its members included the Cotton Screwmen's Union, the Cotton Yardmen's Union, the Printers, the Boiler Makers, and the Car Driver's Union. Union pressure increased, and a call for a general strike arose. Under the threat, some employers not party to the original dispute broke and pressed the board for negotiations.

A tentative agreement collapsed, and the Workingman's Council again called for a general strike, which began on November 8 after two postponements. Each of the 46 unions, which joined the strike, demanded the union shop and recognition of their union. Some also asked for shorter workdays or higher pay. Nearly 25,000 union members, half the city's workforce, and virtually all its unionized workers struck. Streetcars stopped running. Recently organized utility workers joined the strike against the governor's demands and the labor committee's advice. The city's natural gas supply failed on November 8, as did the electrical grid, and the city was thrown into darkness. The delivery of food and beverages immediately stopped, generating alarm among city residents. Construction work, printing, street cleaning, manufacturing, and even firefighting services are halted.

On November 9, the press intensified its appeals to racial hatred. The New Orleans Times-Democrat declared that Black strikers wanted to "take over the city" (a veiled reference to Black sexual assaults on white women) and that white women and children were already being harassed by Black strikers. But the press's appeal to racial hatred failed. Violent incidents never occurred, and picket lines were so quiet that the Board of Trade sent men into the streets to find evidence of physical intimidation. With assistance from the railroads, the employers brought strikebreakers from Galveston and Memphis.

But when a call by the mayor for special deputies turned up only 59 volunteers, the employers began training their clerks and managers for riot duty, offering to pay any costs for a state militia call-up. Mayor John Fitzpatrick issued a proclamation forbidding public gatherings, declaring martial law. Although the city was quiet, the Board of Trade convinced the racist Democratic Governor, Murphy J. Foster, to send in the state militia on November 10. But militia leaders found the city calm and orderly instead of a city under siege. Governor Foster was forced to withdraw the militia on November 11.

The strength of the strike was reflected in the decline of bank clearings in New Orleans to half their pre-strike levels. The Board of Trade agreed to binding arbitration to settle the strike. Although they balked initially, the employers agreed to sit down with White and Black union leaders. After 48 hours of negotiations, the employers decided to the 10-hour day and overtime pay, but not the union shop, nor would they grant recognition to the unions of the Triple Alliance. Other unions also won reduced hours and higher pay.

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