Throughout 1885 and the early part of 1886, workers and railroad officials pursued negotiations and tried to hammer out terms acceptable to both sides. This reflected the innate conflict between workers rights and profits of both the company and the wealthy individuals that owned and ran it.
On March 1, 1886, this ongoing conflict came to a head when a railroad worker was fired for attending a union meeting. This was in violation of the agreements that employees should not be fired “without due notice and investigation.” The situation rapidly turned into a multi-state strike against two railways. Both were owned by railroad magnate Jay Gould, who owned 12 percent of all track in the U.S.
Over the course of the next two months, the strike involved more than 200,000 rail workers and erupted into violence starting March 10th that ultimately killed at least ten people. It also resulted in some jurisdictions declaring martial law. As part of a strike called by the Knights of Labor, striking workers could be found throughout the states of Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri.
Friction was introduced by Pinkerton agents, the hiring of strikebreakers and the refusal to honor the strike by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. This caused striking workers to escalate their efforts into acts of sabotage, such as disabling and assaulting moving trains, sending threatening notes to those engineers still reporting to work and setting rail yards on fire.
On March 19, 1886, a large meeting of labor union representatives, government officials and railroad officials began. In spite of going on for two days, no agreement was met. On April 3rd, three deputies were shot and one was killed in a confrontation related to the strike. Six days later, shots were fired into a mob of at least 80 people, resulting in six deaths and just missing the mayor. In response, the crowd list the rail yards on fire.
On May 4th, the strike was officially called off after a congressional committee advised the union to end the strike. The strike is deemed a failure and a black mark on the union in question. Within just four years, membership in the Knights of Labor had dwindled to about 10 percent of its former glory. Although this union was dying, in its place, a new union was born. The American Federation of Labor was created on December 8, 1886.