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Generally accepted as the first general strike in the United States, the 1877 St. Louis general strike grew out of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The general strike was largely organized by the Knights of Labor and the Marxist-leaning Workingmen's Party, the main radical political party of the era. When the railroad strike reached East St. Louis, Illinois in July 1877, the St. Louis Workingman's Party led a group of approximately 500 people across the river in an act of solidarity with the nearly 1,000 workers on strike. The party transformed, through speeches and organization, an initial strike among railroad workers into a strike by thousands of workers in several industries for the eight-hour day and a ban on child labor. One speaker was noted to say,
|“||All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea - that workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.||”|
At another large rally a black man spoke for those who worked on the steamboats and levees. He asked, "Will you stand to us regardless of color?" The crowd shouted back, "We will!"
The St. Louis strike was marked by a bloodless, efficient and quick take-over by dissatisfied workers of commerce and transportation in the area. By July 22, the St. Louis Commune began to take shape as representatives from almost all the railroad lines met in East St. Louis. They soon elected an executive committee to command the strike and issued General Order No. 1, halting all railroad traffic other than passenger and mail trains. John Bowman, the mayor of East St. Louis, was appointed arbitrator of the committee. He helped the committee select special police to guard the property of the railroads from damage.
The strike reached the business sector by closing packing industry houses surrounding the National Stockyards. At one plant workers allowed processing of 125 cattle in return for 500 cans of beef for the workers. The strike continued to gain momentum, with coopers, newsboys, gasworkers, boatmen, bakers, engineers, cabinetmakers, cigarmakers, brewery workers, millers, and workers of various factory jobs all joining the general strike. Though the East St. Louis strike continued in an orderly fashion, across the river there were isolated incidents of violence with one speaker stating, "The workingmen intend now to assert their rights, even if the result is the shedding of blood.... They are ready to take up arms at any moment."
The strike was ended when some 3,000 federal troops and 5,000 deputized special police killed at least eighteen people in skirmishes around the city. On July 28, 1877, they took control of the Relay Depot, the Commune's command center, and arrested some seventy strikers. With the leadership imprisoned, the strikers surrendered, the wage cuts remained, and 131 strike leaders were fired by the Burlington Railroad.
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