Occupy the Past

City Paper

William Barry was a union organizer for over 20 years. Then, in his words, he “went bad—got married and had kids.” He stayed at home to raise those kids for five years and subsequently landed a spot as the director of labor studies at what was then Dundalk Community College, now Community College of Baltimore County. Barry spent his career there teaching the nuts and bolts of union organizing, but he never had the time or space to do research on the history of the labor movement in Baltimore. Fast forward to the fall of 2011. Barry found himself speaking to a meeting of Occupy Baltimore. We are on hallowed ground, he said, standing at the site of the first “occupy Baltimore”—this one back in 1877. That’s when workers at the B&O Railroad carried out the first national strike. Barry learned that night that very few people had ever even heard of this great event in Baltimore’s history, and with the space and time of retirement, he has written “The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore” to tell this story that has been lost in the deepest recesses of the B&O Railroad Museum’s archives.

Barry’s self-published book tells the story of that great strike against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving Baltimore. The city was at the cusp of changing from the small workshop system to great industrial capitalism, and the railroad was the thing that would make it all go. Rather than tell this story as a top-down history about John Garrett constructing the first common railroad (i.e., a railroad that could carry people as well as freight), Barry puts the worker front and center. This is a story of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine (perhaps partially caused, Barry tells us, by the shipment of contaminated potatoes from Baltimore) to the United States, disembarking at Locust Point, and moving to the alleys in Poppleton to join other recent immigrants on the rail lines. Joining them were German immigrants and Baltimore-born working class men as well as women and children whose labor was necessary to get the railroad workers ready to go to work day after day. Ultimately this is, as Barry puts it at the end of the first chapter, “a tribute to the ‘losers,’ proud and defiant even in defeat.”

Barry’s book is strongest when it presents concrete details to make the case for organizing in the face of blood-sucking corporate owners. He contrasts the overcrowded and dilapidated rowhouses that workers were crammed into with the house Garrett purchased for his son, replete with a gold-plated bathroom. Those excesses were paid for in the blood of workers who were paid low wages to do incredibly dangerous work; nine in a thousand were killed each year. Workers were forced to sign contracts that indemnified the B&O Railroad in case of workplace injury. The railroad would reimburse a passenger for damage to luggage, but when engineer Nicholas Farwell lost his right hand when a locomotive ran off the track and over it, he was on his own. These juicy examples are all over this book, and it reads almost like an exposé.

And in many ways that is exactly what this book is. In our interview, Barry said a number of people—though he won’t name names—“are offended by the presentation of John Garrett who they see as this great social benefactor, when he was in fact ruthless. This is a new view of Baltimore history.” Garrett isn’t the only player who comes off looking ruthless in Barry’s book. Maryland Gov. John Carroll, who we know for his park and his county and his street, isn’t a hero in this account, but instead comes off as an enemy of the people when he calls out the state militia against the strikers. The state stood behind the protection of private property even as they allowed workers to be brutalized in the workplace, and now on the streets. Barry also shows how media coverage of the strike played into the hands of the railroad company, highlighting “violence” and casting clear blame on the workers. Newspapers presented the workers as “tramps, vagrants, the willfully idle, and bums” rather than active resisters with legitimate concerns about safety, wages, and workplace rights. Subsequent histories have taken much of that coverage at face value, leading to warped accounts, even in the secondary literature, and Barry’s book, in the vein of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” goes a long way toward changing how we see this part of Baltimore’s past. 

But why should we rethink this past? Why bother reading about a labor movement from over 100 years ago? Barry says that this story is important because “It shows how workers organized. They didn’t have institutional support. The establishment called for ingratiating itself with the boss, not causing problems.” Rather than wait for an external institution—be it a labor union or the corporation itself—to give permission to go on strike, these workers rose up and went on strike themselves. Pay cut after pay cut, ultimately they were pushed too far to survive. Barry sees similar issues now as workers are asked to give back gains of generations of worker organizing: From the misnamed “furlough” that is really a pay cut, demands to increase worker contributions for health and retirement benefits, to the expectation that we all do more work for the same or less pay, workers today are being pushed to a point where survival is a balancing act on the edge of a knife.

This history is reminder that we’ve been here before, and workers have risen up before. The present situation is not inevitable any more than the conditions facing the railroad workers were inevitable. And their action made real change. Although the railroad ultimately defeated the strike, workers also wrung real concessions from the B&O, including restructured work hours, a relief program in case of illness or injury, a death benefit, and, in 1884, the country’s first pension program. More than this, workers learned the power of organizing and using their leverage to demand change. “How does change happen?” Barry asks. “It comes from the bottom up.”  


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