A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 1996

"A Strike Now Exists on the Northern Pacific Railway
Auburn and the Great Shop Strike, 1918-1923

1918 - 1921
World War I was an unprecedented economic boom for America, the Pacific Northwest, and Auburn. While the lumber and agricultural segments of Washingtonâs economy prospered, the state also became home to a large industrial base rivaling that of many of the east. Seattleâs shipyards single-handedly built nearly 25 percent of all government merchant ships, while simultaneously surpassing in volume of trade the West Coastâs perennial powerhouse port, San Francisco. In that time, as is the case today, the greater part of this material moved by rail. For the Northern Pacific, nearly all the traffic moving to and from Seattleâs docks was routed directly through Auburn.

However, the economic bubble burst nearly as soon as the war ended. Government contracts were quickly canceled, purchases from overseas dried up, and the armed services began demobilizing. Under these conditions, the American economy quickly plunged into a downward spiral from which it would not recover until 1923. American workers, especially union members, were faced with a fight to hold on to their high wartime wages, a fight they would ultimately lose.

There will be bread lines
galore during the coming winter
in the middle west...

The first attack on the wartime wage rates came with the US Railroad Association's Decision 147: a ten-cent-an-hour reduction for employees of all American railroads. In one fell swoop, the Northern Pacific's annual payroll was reduced by $400,000. In less than a month's time, the rumors of a strike began. The Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks sent out official strike ballots at the end of the summer. With rumors flying of a 5- to 13-cents-an-hour pay cut, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers, the Organization of Railroad Conductors, and the Switchmens' Union all had ballots in hand early in September. As members contemplated the implications of a strike, the economy picked up, for a moment. The end of September saw the Globe Republican reporting that "Business conditions in the railroad world are returning to normal." It seemed to be true; 25 trainmen were moved off the extra board and onto regular runs. In addition, traffic finally warranted the return of W-3 Mikados into helper service over Stampede Pass, train tonnage having grown too much for the small force of the NP's Z-3 Mallets alone.

For a while, the prospect of steady work seemed to keep things out of strike territory. It was abetted by voices from with the workers' own ranks, voices sounding threats against the picket lines. Nationally, Trainmens' Union president W.G. Lee asked his members to consider concessions they had won during the war. The postwar reality was that the cost of living had decreased 16 percent in the short time since July 1920. Those walking off the job would join the ranks of five million unemployed men. Locally, Auburn Mayor and NP Conductor O.P. Bertsch journeyed to St. Paul to attend a conference of Brotherhood of Railway Conductors. He returned to Auburn clearly worried. "There will be bread lines galore during the winter in the middle west."

In the end, however, those voices went unheeded. Nationally, members of the various shop unions voted their convictions, not their pocketbooks, by almost 7 to 1 to strike. The only question seemed to be when, and which other unions would follow the shopmen's lead. To avert the crisis, management-government-union negotiations went on through late September and well into October. Finally, things came to a head, with the Brotherhoods and the Switchmen's Union getting ready to strike on October 25. By the preceding Friday, no word of a settlement had come and a Sunday walk out appeared imminent. But instead of picket lines, the unions prevailed. By October 28, the strike threat had worked and management blinked. The concession was an extra-hour-a-day work week. For this, crews would get one minute's extra pay for each hour worked during that six-day week. In the face of having to spend the coming winter in bread lines and picket lines, it may have seemed a bonanza. But the railroads were playing for bigger stakes, and within a few short months they would let it be known. In the meantime, Auburn's crews stayed busy. Unfortunately, what was bustling one day would soon be quiet the next.

Not even the Milwaukee
was that mismanaged...

It wasn't long in coming and of course, it hit the Milwaukee Road first. Before Christmas 1921 the Milwaukee found itself temporarily laying off some 400 shop workers and 120 clerks, half its available force in Tacoma. The Great Recession of 1922 had begun. No railroader in Auburn could now fail to see the country's economic slide, for not even the Milwaukee was that mismanaged. February brought more ominous news. That month, the Great Northern's massive Hillyard shops in Spokane were declared closed for six long weeks. With one bulletin 500 people had found themselves out of work. What had looked bad now must have appeared genuinely bleak, as a first-rate road's shops had closed entirely. Ironically, the national car situation being what it was, the GN's rip tracks stayed open, though on a short four-day week. How long could Auburn expect to hold out? At the end of December the ax (actually more of a hatchet) fell at Auburn. One of the mountain locals was laid off, along with a mere 15 carmen. Then, in early January the force reductions were stepped up, as 12 engineers were demoted and 12 trainmen cut. Also, beginning on January 1 the six-day work week was chopped to five. Still, the cuts had yet to become as severe as the Milwaukee's.

1922, "Strike Not Expected Here"
The new year found the unions, the managers and the government back at the bargaining table. The issue now was overtime. The result of the negotiations was that the eight-hour day would stand, but shop workers would have to make it ten hours straight before receiving time and a half. Agents had it worse; they would only have to make it 12. There would be no assurance of steady work in March, which found the NP beginning to stockpile Roslyn coal in Auburn, in anticipation of a national miner's strike. April brought the first truly good news of the year. The hundred or so rip track workers were going to get a roof over their heads. Working in the open since the opening of the yards in 1913, an 80- by 460-foot shed costing $20,000 would give them some protection from the elements. This good news was soon followed by more of the bad, as the coal minersâ strike cost 12 firemen and seven engineers working extra their jobs. On Stampede Pass all but one helper job was cut. While this strike was having a sharp effect in some places, Auburn still had some 33,000 tons of coal stockpiled around the yard. Trains, with or without cargo, would roll a few more miles yet.

The summer of 1922 saw the rip track shed was started. Soon after the groundbreaking, talk of another strike began. Around the country, railroad unions became fed up with the slide toward pre-war wages. Eleven of the sixteen shop unions voted for a walk-out, this time with a definite date: July 1. The local paper reported the news nonchalantly enough. On page five the headline read "Strike Not Expected Here." Though how the editor, the NP or anyone else planned to keep Auburn's union members out of the strike went unmentioned.

July 1, a Saturday, began with 138 employees staying off the job. The paper noted that two workers showed up for work, found that this time the strike was indeed on, then left. Fifty assorted roundhouse workers and ninety plus carmen had effectively idled the shops. The rip track shed continued to be built, but there were no inspectors, carpenters, oilers or carmen to run it. All that remained were a handful of officials from Division Superintendent J. J. McCullough to Car Foreman Frank Windley and a cadre of some 24 special agents. Bridge and Building Inspector Jim Meacham found himself pressed into service as a car inspector, though only for a day. He caught his finger on a brake shoe and was sent home to recuperate. The shopmen, the Globe Republican noted, hoped to be back on the job in a few days.

The strikers must have thought they were winning for a while. At the NP's South Tacoma shops only seven of 1,300 had stayed on. The general chairman of the NP's Federated Shop Crafts in St. Paul reported to his membership that a whopping 98 percent of shop crafts were out on strike system-wide. Later that July, the strong news continued. Another 23 roundhouse employees, mostly engine wipers, fire builders and assorted helpers, those who could least afford the strike's burdens, walked out as well. The immediate effects of the strike could begin to be seen at the Auburn roundhouse, where two Mallets and three Mikes were already laid up. Then ripples of the strike began to spread outward. Twenty brakemen and six chain gang crews soon found themselves on layoff. Only the rip track shed construction managed to stay under way.

A strike now exists on the
Northern Pacific Railway.

Saint Paul was in a pinch with a coal strike, a shop strike, and a recession, all coming on fast on the heels of nationalization and the Great War's strain. In the midst of all this adversity, St. Paul resolved to break the unions where they stood. Vice-President Jules Rapelje announced that workers not immediately returning to their jobs faced losing all seniority and pension rights. In the scheme of things, it was the death knell for the strike and the strikers. Union members' jobs were now up for grabs in the middle of a recession. With five million unemployed workers hungry for jobs the outcome of the strike was now only a matter of time.

Auburn's papers also found themselves in a bind, advertising competing interests. July 21 saw a statement from E. H. Fitzgerald, president of the Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, and July 28 saw a statement from the NP. Fitzgerald's address was a recital of the facts as he saw them. The Government Board overseeing railroad wages, in direct violation of Congressional law which mandated just and reasonable wages, allowed railroads to pay their clerks from 8 to 40 percent less than other industries; less, in fact, than the Federal Government itself. The new wage rate agreed upon by the board was, in some cases, under half the amount needed to provide the minimum standard of living endorsed by the Department of Labor. While the clerks made out poorly with 30 percent less than the minimum, other crafts represented by the same union managed to do even worse. Truckers would be making 51 percent less, common laborers a monstrous 56 percent less.

The NP's statement was more direct. In simple, plain type, the railway advertised for men, lots of men, in lots of trades, at 47 to 75 cents an hour, depending on the job and skills. Work over eight hours paid time and a half. The only other item mentioned was the fact that "A strike now exists on the Northern Pacific Railway." St. Paul let strikers know their intentions in a less-than-subtle manner by announcing the NP would purchase of 1,000 new 50-ton box cars, 250 stock cars, and 70 express refrigerators. Even with a strike, a recession, and the strain of a world war, the railway was saying it could find and pay new workers and it would still have more than enough capital to purchase millions of dollars worth of new equipment. The message was clear. There would be no bargaining.

Within days of the NP's call for men, the yard began to come back to life. Early August saw 100 men at work in the picketed yards, nine chain gang crews were back on, and six eastbounds were making their way over the hill each day. To avoid trouble, the scabs were housed on the premises; a shantytown of ragged housing grew up around the shops. By the middle of August, the local courts moved against the strikers; a temporary restraining order forced them down to just one picketer at a time at each point of entrance and egress from the yard. Strikers fought back by setting up a "Rogue's Gallery", a photo-covered billboard of scabs who dared to cross the picket line.

While the shanties and the restraining order may have helped to reduce tensions, it did not eliminate them. Dan Taylor, a switchman who moved 6 cars instead of 16 as Yardmaster Grover C. Stacey had requested, wound up in such a quarrel over the misunderstanding that the Yardmaster hit him. After going home for a short while, Taylor returned to the yard, drunk and armed, to settle the score. Entering the yard office, he and Stacey grappled, the result being bullets through both lungs and the right shoulder of the 35-year-old Yardmaster. Taylor fled the scene, only to kill himself before he could be arrested. Stacey was sent to the local hospital to recover from his wounds. This would be the only violent incident reported throughout the duration of the strike in Auburn.

In contrast to the violence between those staying on the job, those outside the yard found themselves actively supported by non-railroaders of their town. A rally and dance was thrown for the strikers in August, with a large group coming together to help. Auburn's Mission Theater ran ads for a week before all their features, the Auburn Military Band and Rooney's Orchestra donated their musical talents and the Auburn Music House chipped in with a piano. Local builders Colby & Dickinson put together the orchestra platform, while lights were provided by the Parks Electric Co. Finally, to everyone's pleasure in the middle of a very long summer, the Auburn Ice Cream Co. donated the refreshments. Here, at a time when violence had come to town, and the promise that the railway would hold out longer than the strikers could bear, the citizen's of Auburn rallied around their union members. It was to be their last good news.

September came and went without a settlement, as did October. The only real news to report was that St. Paul was at it again, announcing in late October that the Northern Pacific would purchase 1,000 automobile boxcars, 250 convertible carriers, 250 gondola coal cars and 70 more express refrigerator cars. The price tag was $4 million, several times the cost of constructing the entire yard in far-off 1913. In the same edition ran an article on the visit of St. Paul officials to Auburn. Vice-President Rapelje's message was straightforward and very clear. "There is no settlement contemplated and there will be none."

As the cold, Christmas and 1923 closed in, the locals officers had trouble keeping their members together. The word from the shops was that strikers would be taken back as vacancies occurred. Newly elected local Shop Crafts Chairman Fred Haas tried to make it clear that both locally and nationally, the strike was still on. They were going to stay out, he said "...until a satisfactory agreement has been made." But such an agreement would not come in 1922, or any year.

Auburn Yard Workers, outside roundhouse, c1920. Joe Hebert, under window, (father of Mar Hebert)  was a roundhouse foreman who support the strike. The company refused to rehire him, prematurely ending his railroading career.

P.O. # 58

That Tumultuous Year
It may never be known whether witnessing more huge outlays for equipment, seeing the recovery of the national economy, or just the long months without incomes convinced the unions to end the strike. Whatever it was, they were a stubborn enough lot that they stayed out another month before finally admitting defeat. On February 13, 1923 the Chairman of the NP's Federated Shop Crafts, A. R. Henning, called off the strike from St. Paul. He closed the announcement by thanking all who had supported the unions and their members. In Auburn, as the crews went back, the symbols of the strike were slowly torn down. The strike-breaker's shanties were converted to storage space, though not before the loyal union men had the small pleasure of seeing the Northern Pacific's own Special Agents serve eviction notices to the scabs still living in them. Life, for a time, would return to normal.

The strikers had been out seven and a half grueling months, from blazing summer to frigid winter, in the midst of a national recession. Right or wrong, they lost far more then they had gained: years of seniority rights, pensions, more than half a year's income, in addition to having their very livelihoods washed away in the turmoil. Their unions, bankrupted in the fight, failed to achieve their goals and in the process saw their own power destroyed.

The Northern Pacific came through the ordeal unscathed. After bringing in new crews at lower pay the NP then rode out the recession and the unions. Those who had broken with their unions or crossed the picket lines found themselves in the best of all worlds with steady incomes and instant seniority. For decades after the strike, shop foremen's seniority dates on the NP would be emblazoned with that tumultuous year: 1922.

by J. A. Phillips, III

(many references can be found in the WRVM's Leslie Newspaper Library)