Saturday, January 24, 2015

"It Was A Breakdown In Public Order" -- The Indianapolis Streetcar Strike of 1913

While I've been on somewhat of a hiatus -- due to infirmity and feeling vaguely out of sorts, not sure what it is -- every now and then, I've looked back into my ancestry, filling in some of the missing links and pondering the nature of my mother's father, the outlaw who spurred my research in the first place.

One of the things I was told about him when I was young was that he was a streetcar conductor in Indianapolis who was killed in a tragic accident. He was crushed between the cars when my mother was five years old. That would have been in 1916.

I learned something about the Indianapolis city and interurban traction -- or streetcar -- system years ago. It was immense, not just in the city but throughout the region with routes from Cincinnati to Chicago. It was the major way people got around in those days and it was one of the main ways of moving freight between cities and towns in the region.

And there was a strike in 1913; there was another one in 1918. I wondered if my grandfather had participated in the 1913 strike. Because he must have been such a rebel, I wondered if his death was not an accident at all but was retaliation for his union activities -- assuming he was a union member. It wouldn't surprise me. Not in the least.

I've recently looked into the 1913 Indianapolis Streetcar Strike again to see if I can get a better picture of what was going on and what the outcome was.

The strike was instigated by the Amalgamated Street Railway Employees of America, and it started on Hallowe'en night, October 31, 1913. The strike was called because the traction company essentially refused to negotiate pay and working conditions for the employees and then fired hundreds of union workers then employed by the company and refused to hire any union workers in the future. We often think that employer/employee relations are bad now. They were much worse then. Almost inconceivably worse, which should be a clue to how bad things can get once again.

The company offered workers nominal pay of 20¢ or 21¢ an hour; work schedules were typically ten or twelve hours a day, but schedules were often arbitrarily cut, days off were random -- if there were any at all -- and workers could never depend steady employment or regular pay. Many workers reported they were not paid for the work they did and often received much less than the company's nominal pay rates. Instead of 20¢ or 21¢ an hour, they received 10¢ or 15¢; the company would dock the pay of workers for any reason or no reason, and workers were essentially at the complete mercy of the company and its management. There was no sick leave, no vacation, but the company provided paid meal breaks -- so long as the workers weren't en route which motormen and conductors almost always were. Workers had few or no rights, they could be assigned or fired at will, and they they were afforded neither dignity nor justice within the company. They were little more than disposable and replaceable parts. It was a rough time for workers in every industry, but the streetcar systems of America -- and particularly Indianapolis -- were particularly mean and soul crushing to their workers.

My mother's father worked intermittently as both a conductor and a motorman in Indianapolis from about 1905 until he left town -- which would have been between 1912 and 1914. I know that he was arrested for burglary in May of 1912 and waived his preliminary hearing, but I've found no record of the disposition of his case. I thought he might have gone to prison, but there is apparently no record of that. I thought maybe he'd left town in 1912, but the other day, I found a brief reference to him in Indianapolis in a newspaper clipping from June of 1913. This was getting very close to the beginning of the strike -- and the notice referred to him as a conductor.

Ah ha. So he was still in Indianapolis -- and apparently still working for the traction company -- as late as mid-1913. By that time, the Amalgamated Street Railway Employees union were organizing in Indianapolis and running into all sorts of duplicity from the company. It would have been difficult or impossible for Lawrence Riley (my mother's father) to stay out of it. Given his rebellious nature, I doubt he'd want to stay out of it in any case. I can easily envision him stirring things up instead.

The Indianapolis Streetcar Strike of 1913 was the biggest transit strike in the country up to that point, and it snarled or stopped transportation throughout the upper Midwest for days. There was a police mutiny in Indianapolis as well. Sympathetic policemen refused orders to quell the strike. They would not fire on the strikers. Many resigned from the force; others were fired for "insubordination." The company brought in Pinkerton strikebreakers from Chicago to run the cars. The strikebreakers were promptly set upon by strikers and other citizens of Indianapolis. The police -- what few were still on the job -- refused to protect the strike breakers. Street cars were vandalized, overhead wires were cut, the whole system was brought to a screeching halt. The situation was characterized as "a breakdown in public order." Restoration of law and order was the chief demand of the streetcar company, but they faced the devil's own time getting their way.

Four strikers and two strikebreakers were killed in the ensuing mayhem, hundreds were injured in the so-called riots. A considerable portion of the company's rolling stock was damaged or destroyed. Electric wires powering the streetcars were cut. There were reports of extensive vandalism throughout downtown Indianapolis, though how true they were it's hard to say at this distance. The governor eventually called in the National Guard to restore order and they were even going to be assigned to run the cars if the strikers did not go back to work. There was a mass gathering of strikers and their sympathizers at the Capitol building at which a list of demands was presented to the governor. He spoke to the crowd and promised that he would present labor reform legislation to be voted on early the next year. The crowd was not mollified, but in the end, he met with strike leaders and company management and mediated some of the issued sufficiently that the strikers agreed to return to their jobs under certain conditions and workers and management agreed to submit grievances to binding arbitration.

The company, after refusing to even acknowledge workers and their grievances, finally faced the necessity of dealing with the problems workers had been pointing out for years, specifically abysmally low pay and arbitrary working conditions. While the union demanded 35¢ an hour minimum, the company granted 28¢ -- after defending their lower pay scale as just and proper and quite sufficient for their workers who were, with few exceptions, satisfied. After all, workers who had been with the company five years or more were already receiving 25¢ an hour, so what were the whiners complaining about anyway? The company also agreed to minimum weekly and monthly schedules and pay. Minimum per month was set at a princely $45. About $11 a week. It's easy enough to imagine how little transit company workers were paid prior to the agreement.

My grandmother, Edna, was working as a telephone operator at the time, and I did a little research on what operators were paid in the early 1900s. It was pretty bad. Starting pay was around $20 a week and it was considered by telephone workers to be insultingly low. Telephone companies justified the low pay by claiming that it took years and years for operators to become skilled enough to warrant higher pay, after years and years of training and experience, it wasn't uncommon for them to make $25 or even $30 a week, considered a magnificent sum for the day.

My grandmother didn't work for the telephone company, she worked for a bank -- which coincidentally enough was managed by Lawrence Riley's brother George. She worked there for years and years. I don't know how much she made working as an operator at the bank, but it was probably more -- conceivably quite a lot more -- than Lawrence Riley received from the traction company as a conductor or motorman before or after the strike.

In the bigger picture, the strike led the Indiana Legislature to pass all kinds of labor reform. Minimum wage, end of child labor, establishment of worker rights, rules and mechanisms for grievances, on and on. It was an extensive package of reform, one of the most extensive in the country at the time. Compared to where national labor law was at the time, Indiana's reforms were stunning.

All because of a week-long strike and the determination of workers in the face of violence and duplicity by the state and the company and in the face of provocation from strike breakers.

Let's be clear, though. It was not a "peaceful" strike by any means. It wasn't as bloody and violent a some would be both before and after, but the key element, I think, is that the police mutinied and refused to carry out orders to suppress the strike. The people of Indianapolis for the most part stood with the strikers and with the police mutineers. Even though the traction company got most of what it wanted in the arbitration, and workers seemed to get very little, the results overall were remarkable.

A lesson can be learned from this 1913 "breakdown in public order." Don't give in and don't give up. Stand for what is right. Stand with one another. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

"Ain't no power like the power of the people 
'cause the power of the people won't stop."

Be not afraid...


  1. OT: I don't have an FDL account but I wanted to remark on your comment re Grossman--his "sheepdog" idea sounds almost identical to Nazi anti-democratic, anti-Communist doctrine.

    They asserted that races were living organisms with individual people being analogous to cells, and that they would spontaneously generate a special class of "cells", the natural leader ("fuhrer") type, to guide and protect them.

    Democracy and Communism represented two different means by which an attacking enemy deprives the "body" of these "protector" "cells"--Communism by killing them, Democracy by depriving them of their "rightful" power and giving it to the weak normal "cells" who are incapable of protecting themselves.

    I don't know if Grossman has ever actually inveighed against democracy himself, but the conclusion would seem to follow naturally enough.

  2. [c'td] The entire concept only makes sense if you buy into the underlying bizarre Hegelian notions about mystical racial essences and teleological evolution. In a Darwinian context it's all patent nonsense--species (to say nothing of "races") aren't selected for the way organisms are, and sheepdogs don't occur in nature, and couldn't occur in nature.

    Sheepdogs only exist in the first place because farmers bred them for their task--and the farmer rather conspicuously lacks any counterpart in Grossman's charming scenario.

    1. I've been appalled by Grossman's quasi-religious ravings for quite a while; he's been promoting his crap for decades, and the police and military eat it up. He's truly a menace.

      I've never before considered his nonsense to be derived from Nazi or Fascist race "theory," but you might be on to something.

      And yes, isn't it interesting that Grossman leaves out the fact that "sheepdogs" are working for the shepherd or the flock's owner, not the sheep.

      Oh yeah.

      But to carry his metaphor forward, police are not sheepdogs anymore -- if they ever were. They're wolves.