Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Philadelphia Strike” (1910)



EVER since the trolley strike of last June, when the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company was forced into the semblance of an agreement with its men, it has made systematic efforts to undermine, crush, and utterly destroy their union. The ink was scarcely dry before it began violating this agreement, and at last, feeling that it had acquired sufficient strength through the introduction of a rival union, an organization of scabs, it began forcing the situation, by discharging its old men, men who had been in the service from ten to twenty years, “for the good of the service.” In the middle of the winter, with the snows of the great blizzard yet on the streets, it endeavored to precipitate a strike, thus creating in the public mind the idea that the union men were utterly reckless of the hardships of riders. Through the efforts of the careful men in the union, the strike was held back, until Saturday, the i9th of February, when by a sudden wholesale discharge of six hundred men, the Company forced a walk-out.

Rioting began promptly, and up till the Thursday following the declaration of the strike, success lay with the men. Few cars were operated, and practically no one rode in these except their scab crews and the “cops” who guarded them. The reason, of course, was very simple: people did not want their heads broken. For while it is true that many thousands of people voluntarily walk, or ride in any conveyance rather than a street car, the great majority of riders are indifferent both to the men and the company, and are occupied only with their own private concerns. These stayed off the cars only for prudential motives; and so long as brickbats were flying into windows, trolley poles pulled off and cars upset, tracks barricaded, and scabs put out of business, these people preferred to walk. The city police having proved ineffective, and the State Fencibles having made a rather funny exhibition of themselves by having their swords, guns, and shining buttons taken away from them by the Germantown rioters, the State Constabulary were sent for. And there was peace: so the papers said. One reason they said so, was because the great merchants assembled and told the newspapers that unless they stopped printing riot scares, they, the merchants, would withdraw their “ads.” Accordingly the papers minimized, where before they had maximized, and while rioting continued to an extent, and does still continue, it has been reduced; the Company’s scabs have resumed their courage; and a great number of people ride—many, indeed, who would like to see the men win, but who have not been able to endure the hardship of walking. According to the Company’s statements they are now doing about 60 per cent. of their usual business, which is of course a lie; but the —they are doing entirely too much for the good of the trolleymen.

Meanwhile there was much talk; the general strike, as a possibility, hove in sight within three days after the trolley strike began, and if on that critical Thursday it had been declared, the trolley strike would have been won. The people would have been in the streets, cars could not have run, scabs would have remained away, and the Company would have given in. But, O Procrastination, Procrastination! The precious conservatism, which always waits for its enemies to do something for it! The men have prayed for arbitration; the Company refuses; the business men have prayed for arbitration; the Company refuses; the ministers have consulted with God and then prayed the Company for arbitration; the Company refuses; the Mayor has been besought to urge arbitration; he refuses. At last the Central Labor Union makes good its talk on Sunday, the 27th of February, and in an enthusiastic meeting votes for a General Strike; when—–? O, Futility! On Saturday, March 5th, a week later! A whole week for the Company to re-establish its service, for Director Clay to swear in more police, for the bosses to post notices to their workmen to remain or lose their jobs, for spies to canvass the shops, for business associations to pass resolutions, and newspapers to write editorials deploring the disgrace brought on the “fair fame of Philadelphia,” and other patriotic drivel; for the weak-kneed to get weaker, and enthusiasm to cool; for lawyers to hunt up laws and courts of appeal! Oh, the idiocy of conservatism!

I write on Friday, the 4th of March; the strike order goes into effect at midnight, to-night. Undoubtedly it will be a great object lesson; even to have conceived a general strike is something for the workers of this curse-ridden city. But one feels poignantly the tactical mistakes of the unions, whereby the great struggle which would have been successful on the 24th of February, is now likely to be defeated.

At any rate, the working people have had an excellent demonstration of what police and soldiers are for, what interests city officials serve, and what may be hoped by them from laws and courts. There have been many frightful sentences inflicted on rioters—some even to six years’ prison; many painful murders of innocent people; brutal and utterly unprovoked assaults by the police upon mere bystanders. On the other hand, the mobs have not been gentle, and have manifested their hatred of scabs in clearly comprehensible language. If the authorities had any discernment (which they have not, being drunk with the idea of constituted force) they would realize the depth of the words of the United Business Men’s resolutions, which say: “Superior brute force may quiet and quell, but it will not placate the people, convince the strikers, or satisfactorily and permanently end the struggle.” Whoever wrote those lines undoubtedly saw something looming ahead, which neither Timothy O’Leary, Director Clay, nor Mayor Reyburn have eyes to see.

I remember the words of my teacher, Dyer D. Lum, about the Homestead Strike of ’92: “Don’t worry; it’s only a pimple.” Such is the Philadelphia strike, to what is one day coming.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Philadelphia Strike,” Mother Earth 5 no. 1 (March 1910): 7-10.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.