Retired CCBC professor keeping a moment in history alive
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 12:38
 by John G. Bailey

    One hundred and thirty seven years ago this month, what became known as the Great Railway Strike of 1877 started in Baltimore. Triggered by a ten percent wage cut by B&O Railroad, the strike quickly spread to other cities and soon convulsed the country. To memorialize the strike and educate the public, retired CCBC labor history professor Bill Barry wrote The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore, which came out in June. alt
    Barry — a leading advocate of the Maryland historical marker that commemorates the strike near Camden Yards — was motivated to write the book from people’s general ignorance of the event.
    “It [the strike] was a seminal moment that needs to be remembered,” Barry told The Eagle. “It was the first national strike against the first national industry.”
    Yet Barry says the  strike is frequently overlooked or misunderstood in school curricula. He says that when the strike is mentioned in school books, it is often referred to as a riot. “That’s a slur on the labor movement,” Barry said.
     The 1877 Railroad Strike was a product of its times. Rising labor conciousness inevitably led to clashes with the growing size, power and wealth of industrial conglomerates during the post-Civil War era. Railroads, which were instrumental in linking the sprawling nation, spurred the growth of the coal and steel industries. As a consequence, what started out as a labor dispute between workers and the B&O Railroad in Baltimore soon spread to other industries in other cities.
    Violence replaced dialogue between workers and railroad officials, when on an afternoon in the first week of the strike in Baltimore, militia companies confronted strikers. Ten people were killed — most of them non-strikers — when the troops opened fire on a crowd near City Hall.
   As federal troops replaced local militia in Baltimore and other cities, the wider civic implications of the strike became apparent. “[The strike] had an enormous impact,” Barry said. “I could have written a 1,000-page book.”
    Though the strike failed, Barry traces what he calls “the arc of history” from the 1877 event to the Railroad Labor Act of 1926, the first federal law that recognized the right of collective bargaining.
    Barry sees similarities between labor conditions in 1877 and today. He notes that the growth in wealth inequality in contemporary American society mirrors the post-Civil War era, which Mark Twain irreverently named the “Gilded Age.” Workers then and now also face “wage theft” — paying workers only for primary tasks — and reduction of hours, according to Barry.
    “The strike has a lot of lessons for current workers,” he said. In both eras, labor organizers [faced and now face] different but similar challenges of scale. With the growth of interstate corporations in the post-Civil War era, workers had to shift from local to national strategies. Today, says Barry, corporations are international in scope, and workers have to organize accordingly.
    Barry is currently working with the Maryland Historical Trust to erect a marker to commemorate steelworkers at Sparrows Point.