This April 21, 1888 report and response from Harper's Weekly gives an overview of the Burlington, Chicago and Quincy Railroad Strike; the role of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the ready availability of replacement workers, and escalating violence all draw the writer's attention. A response to the strike written by William Dean Howells, American author and literary critic, was added to the Harper's article and is written from the point of view of a stockholder favoring arbitration.

AFTER a six weeks' struggle, one of the most important railroad strikes inaugurated since 1876 in this country has practically ended. The engineers and firemen of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy system (which reaches out through eight States, from Chicago to the Rocky Mountains, over 5500 miles of track, and touches 1500 cities, towns, and villages) left their engines, at the command of Chief ARTHUR of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and refused to return to work unless certain demands were acceded to, among the most reasonable of which was an increase of pay. The railroad officials were willing to pay larger salaries on the main line than on the branches, but this did not satisfy the strikers, and some 15,000 men put on their coats on the 25th of February, and for six weeks did everything in their power to cripple the corporations for which they had previously worked. Chief ARTHUR and his staff of Brotherhood officers and counsellors took up their headquarters in Chicago, and from that base the battle was fought, and lost to them. Engineers and firemen from Eastern roads, and notably from the Reading, where a strike had just ended, in which the employees considered themselves not well supported by the Brotherhood, began to pour into Chicago, seeking employment, which was freely given, and which of course had the effect to weaken the moral force of the Brotherhood itself. Finding that the road was so well prepared to resist the demands of the strikers, the latter resorted to various measures to force them to terms, and through the sympathetic action of their associates on other lines succeeded in instituting a freight boycott, by reason of a threatening to go out in a body if the several lines connecting with the Burlington system accepted or forwarded any freight offered by the latter road at any connecting point, no matter whether it was through or local business. Not one of the roads connecting with the Burlington was left out.

Naturally the business public began to interest itself in the conflict at this point, with the result that the aid of the United States courts was invoked to stop this interference with the transit of goods. The courts at Chicago and Omaha decided against the strikers, and this, with the sudden termination of the Santa Fe strike, inaugurated March 15th, and the refusal of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul engineers and firemen to go out, had a depressing and weakening effect. As a last resort, however, the engineers enlisted the switchmen, and began to practice the tactics of malicious interference, which had hitherto been kept in the background. As soon as new switchmen took the places of the retiring Burlington employees, the latter, in organized bodies, set upon and maltreated the former to that extent that special forces of detectives were required to preserve the peace and to protect the property of the railroad. Assaults were made in the Chicago freight yards, and a number of switchmen severely injured.

The switchmen's strike then swept over the Western railroad regions, following out the course of the original strike of the engineers arid firemen, and first and last taking in the Santa Fe system, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul, and other connecting lines; but it passed along like a wave, and the old order of things was restored as soon as reason could be heard. By the 3d of April the strikers, finding their tactics gradually losing force and their stratagem weakening, determined to take one more step that should bring their opponent to terms. They announced that the boycott against the moving of Burlington cars by other roads was removed, that other lines could do as they pleased, and their employees be under no obligations to aid the strikers, save with sympathy and spare cash, and the strike would be confined to the Burlington road. This radical action was taken because the strikers said the Burlington company had undertaken, in bad faith, to create trouble between other companies and their employees, having no motive in view except the injury of connecting lines or their people. The Burlington officials were growing able, however, to conduct their business without the assistance of the strikers. New men had taken control of the affairs, new engineers and firemen were running the trains as skillfully as did the old employees, and the strike slowly but surely was becoming a thing of the past. By the end of the first week of April the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers were again pondering over the uncertainty of strikes, and the inevitable had happened. The Burlington struggle had virtually ended, with the same result as the Reading. Mr. POWDERLY advised against the latter; Mr. ARTHUR had no heart and no encouragement for the former. The strikers may hold out for a while yet, and Mr. ARTHUR may still direct the contest, but it must all end in failure.

It has been estimated that this great strike has caused a loss to the engineers' and firemen's brotherhoods of $601,500 for the forty-five days the strike has lasted; while to the Burlington company the loss has been $2,100,000. Of course there are many indirect losses scattered throughout the whole of the Burlington system which it is difficult to compute.

The latest movement of the strikers was to endeavor to induce the brakemen to join in the warfare on the Burlington system, with the hope that the conductors would also give the strikers their aid. The engineers and firemen have for some time been negotiating for the support of the Knights of Labor, and it has been intimated that this would be accorded them.
C. E. H.


WITH grief that I think must be shared by a good many other holders of Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy stock, I saw that stock go down from 129 to 112 under the effect of the private war waged between the railroad and its engineers and switchmen. I am told by the press that the loss was through the fault of these employees of the road, and that its officers illustrated a beneficent principle in standing firm against them and refusing their demands. The principle was that the road had the right to manage its private affairs in its own way.

But here, I think, is an error. A railroad has, strictly speaking, no private affairs. It is a corporation which in return for certain franchises has assumed certain obligations, and before all corporate rights it has these public duties. It ought to consider these always, and from the beginning; but it is said that when early in the war the opposite faction offered to submit its claims to arbitration, the officers of the C., B., & Q. replied that there was nothing to arbitrate. If this was true, it was a great pity, and I believe a great mistake. There is no question here of the road's treatment of its employees, but if these thought themselves underpaid, and the road thought them paid enough, it was the very moment for arbitration.

That truly Christian device for averting public war has now been successfully tried, and it seems to me it would have been well to use it in the danger of the private war which has embarrassed travel and commerce on the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy, and spread loss far arid wide. It is in quality of timid capitalist that I write; and I wish to say that I have no particular affection for the Brotherhood of Engineers; it has before now shown itself short-sighted and selfish, and in its betrayal by the Knights of Labor it is said to be paying the penalty of a treason of its own. But however this may be, it is unquestionably a power, lawfully organized for defence and offence, and it was the part of policy for the opposing force to recognize its strength. It was also a duty to do this in view of its obligations to the public, which neither of the belligerents in the case has considered. The road was bound to come to any tolerable accommodation with its employees, so that the public might not suffer. The quarrel, as far as it concerned the engineers, was between them and the road; but as concerned the road, it did not end there: the community was an immediate sufferer from its impolicy—the community, which had a sovereign claim upon its service.

When the strike began, I suppose that nearly every humane person said to himself, "Well between men who want to make a better living and a corporation that wants to make more money I can have no choice." I said something like this myself, not remembering my C., B., & Q. stock in my magnanimity. But of course when the strike came, as strikes must, to involve violence, the general sentiment changed, and many lectures have been read to the engineers on their misbehavior, but to the road none. That is my reason for attempting to read it a little one now, to remind it that it is the creature of public favor, with duties to the public which it had no right to fail in through any mistaken sense of its corporate dignity or interest. I dare say that the engineers' strike against it will end, as all strikes have hitherto ended, in disaster to the strikers. But I am sure that strikes will not always end so. It is only a question of time, and of a very little time, till the union of labor shall be so perfect that nothing can defeat it. We may say this will be a very good time or a very bad time; all the same, it is coming. Then the question will come with it: Shall the railroads fulfil their public obligations by agreement with their employees, or shall the government take possession of them and operate them? It is folly to talk of the withdrawal of capital, and the consequent ruin of the country. The country belongs to the people, and they are not going to let it be ruined. Their possession of the railroads would involve much trouble and anxiety, but the Railroad Receiver, who is an agent of theirs, is not unknown, and his management of roads is good; so that the public may take heart of hope if the worst ever comes to the worst.

But let us understand that it is not engineers or switchmen or brakemen who can bring it to the worst; it is only directors and managers and presidents who refuse to arbitrate, and who forget their public duties so far as to talk of a railroad's affairs as private affairs.

About this Document

  • Source: Harper's Weekly
  • Citation: 266
  • Date: April 21, 1888