Streetcar strikes in the United States

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Streetcar strikes in the United States
Cleveland Streetcar strike cropped.jpg
Boys in Cleveland, Ohio with track obstruction, year unknown; Cleveland's streetcar system had eight strikes in its history [1]
Date1895 - 1929
United States
Methods Strikes, protest, demonstrations

From 1895 to 1929, streetcar strikes affected almost every major city in the United States. Sometimes lasting only a few days, these strikes were often "marked by almost continuous and often spectacular violent conflict," [2] at times amounting to prolonged riots and weeks of civil insurrection.


Following the 1929 New Orleans streetcar strike, less violent strikes persisted for decades, such as the Atlanta transit strike of 1950. The rise of private automobile ownership limited its impact. [3]


Electrified streetcars posed an attractive target for striking unions like the Amalgamated Street Railway Employees of America. Unlike factory buildings, streetcar routes and cars were spread out and difficult to protect. The routes went through the working class neighborhoods of cities; riders tended to be sympathetic to union causes. Their overhead lines and physical tracks were vulnerable to sabotage. And their function as transportation for workers in other industries opened the possibility of leveraging a transit strike into a general strike, as in the Philadelphia trolley strike and riots of 1910.

Streetcar strikes rank among the deadliest armed conflicts in American labor union history. Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor called the St. Louis Streetcar Strike of 1900 "the fiercest struggle ever waged by the organized toilers" [4] up to that point, with a total casualty count of 14 dead and about 200 wounded, more than the Pullman Strike of 1894. The casualty count for the San Francisco Streetcar Strike of 1907 saw 30 killed and about 1000 injured. [2]

Despite the transit disruption, which sometimes lasted for months, and despite the fact that many of the casualties were passengers and innocent bystanders, "the strikers invariably enjoyed wide public support, which extended beyond the working class." [2]

The owners' tactic was simply to keep the routes running. To counter hostile crowds, the line owners turned to strikebreakers. Foremost among them was James A. Farley (1874-1913), who specialized in streetcar strikes—he claimed to have broken 50—and was said to command an army of forty thousand scabs [5] to be deployed anywhere in the country. Much of the violence of the 1907 San Francisco strike was attributable to Farley, who reportedly cleared $1 million there. He was doing more than $10 million in business by 1914. [6]


National Guard soldiers guarding a Kansas City streetcar during a 1918 motorman and conductor strike National Guard soldiers were called out to guard Kansas City streetcars in 1918 when motormen and conductors went on strike.jpg
National Guard soldiers guarding a Kansas City streetcar during a 1918 motorman and conductor strike

Examples of American streetcar strikes include:

Striking workers during the San Francisco streetcar strike in 1907 fell tree to obstruct the tracks. Obstruction on tracks during San Francisco Streetcar Strike 1907.jpg
Striking workers during the San Francisco streetcar strike in 1907 fell tree to obstruct the tracks.


Scenes of streetcar strikes, and the friction between owners and workers, appear in contemporary fiction such as Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie of 1900 (based on Dreiser's own experience in a Toledo, Ohio strike), and William Dean Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes of 1890.

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  1. Cleveland: the making of a city by William Ganson Rose, page 1013
  2. 1 2 3 Norwood, Stephen H. (2002). Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-century America . p.  36. ISBN   0807853739.
  3. Norwood, Stephen H. Strikebreaking and Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth-century America. p. 69.
  4. Motorman and Conductor, June 1900
  5. Leslie's Monthly Magazine, Volume 60, May 1905, page 106
  6. The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History by Aaron Brenner, Benjamin Day, Immanuel Ness, page 56
  7. Robert B., Ross; George B., Catlin (1898). LANDMARKS OF DETROIT A HISTORY OF THE CITY. pp. 547–553. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  8. John Gurda, The Making of Milwaukee, 198
  9. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 21 June 1900
  10. "Troops Out to End Riots in Buffalo" (PDF). New York Times. April 9, 1913. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  11. "Woman and Boy Shot in Car Riot" (PDF). New York Times. April 10, 1913. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  12. "Street Car Strike in Charlotte". The Charlotte–Mecklenburg Story. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. 2017. Retrieved April 24, 2017.
  13. Joseph Canfield, Bulletin 112 of the Central Electric Railfans Association (1972), 32-33