While car ownership is the norm today, during the 1920s, the most popular method of travel for both people and freight was by rail. In fact, railroads were so vital to the nation that during World War One, President Woodrow Wilson nationalized America’s entire rail industry in order to help the war effort. Wilson formed the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) to oversee the railroad system; rail workers enjoyed a period of prosperity under the USRA, which increased their wages and established an 8-hour workday.
However, after the war, the government initiated the process of handing back the railroads to their private owners via the Transportation Act of 1920. Under this legislation, a nine-member panel known as the Railroad Labor Board (RLB) came to oversee management of railroads as they transitioned back to private control. The RLB gave companies approval to slash workers’ wages in 1921 in the wake of postwar drops in production and an increase in the size of the labor force.
The following year, after deep tensions surrounding the unionization of railroad employees, the RLB approved a second round of wage cuts. In response, all railway unions in America—even those whose members were not affected—sent out strike ballots. Railway shopmen, including mechanics, electricians, and other skilled tradesmen, as well as maintenance workers were most affected by the reductions in wages, and seven unions representing those workers voted to go on strike. On July 1, 1922 the Great Railroad Strike began as over 400,000 shopmen and maintenance workers across the country walked off the job.
The railroads did not take kindly to the strike, and they immediately began hiring replacement workers to fill jobs vacated by strikers. Companies also received support from the government, especially President Warren G. Harding and RLB Chairman Ben W. Hooper, who declared that striking railroad workers had abandoned their arbitration rights in the so-called “outlaw resolution.”
Violence frequently broke out between strikers and strikebreakers, company guards, and law enforcement officers who sided with the railroad companies. Many of the strikers protested via peaceful and legal means, although many strikers did issue threats to strikebreakers, sabotage company property, and physically attack strikebreakers. Company guards used violence as well, and it was not uncommon for them to shoot into crowds of strikers. By the strike’s conclusion, at least 10 people had been killed: one company guard, but mostly strikers or members of strikers’ families who were protesting alongside them.
While the RLB made a small attempt to mediate the strike, President Harding issued a declaration that let companies retain strikebreakers as permanent employees (as stipulated in the outlaw resolution) but acknowledged some of the merits of the strikers’ complaints. Meanwhile, Chairman Hooper and Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty supported the companies, and U.S. Marshalls and National Guard units were sent to defend strikebreakers and railroad property. Although the strike ended in defeat for the unions and workers, unlike other major strikes of this time period, many of the disputes were resolved at the local rather than national level.