I0n July 14, 1877 a strike among Baltimore and Ohio railroad workers in West Virginia and Baltimore lit a spark that spread to the Mid- West and Northeast, including Albany. It was the first labor strike to spread across the nation.
It started in the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1873 – the worst Depression to grip the nation since the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the worst of the economic downturn unemployment reached 14%. It was the age of railroad and other robber barons and their huge fortunes – capitalism run amok with no safeguards for workers. And so the railroads started cutting wages and then cut them again. Wages in some sectors decreased to about 45% of what that had previously been.
The strike reached Albany in late July 1877. Albany was a railroad hub for the New York Central, Delaware and Hudson and other railroads. Thousands of Albany men, especially Irish immigrants were employed by the railroads. And things became violent. Tracks were ripped up in an effort to halt the trains. There were efforts to impede arrivals and departures at the two train depots in the city – one near the corner of Broadway and Clinton, and the other on Broadway, near the famous Delevan House Hotel.
Strikers tried to damage the West Albany railroad yards, owned by the New York Central Railroad – near Watervliet Ave. and Everett Rd., and clashed with the Guard.
Other workers joined the strike in solidarity with the railroad workers. The economic oppression of the ruling class was felt throughout the working class.
The Governor called in the State National Guard. And the Guard and federal troops were sent to other states. After 45 days the strike was quelled, with over 100 people dead and millions in property damage in across the country. In the short term the strike had little effect on labor conditions and wages. But it did get the attention of the nation, and it was the catalyst for an explosion in the growth of trade unions across the country. Especially in Albany, which became a hub for the growth of the labor movement. The unions pushed for better wages and better working conditions.
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland, who had once been Governor of New York State and seen it all, signed into law the federal act making Labor Day a federal holiday.
Thank the unions.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor