From the 1992 Kansas City Labor History Bus Tour
The Streetcar Strikes of 1917-18
were three important transit strikes in Kansas City during, and immediately
following, World War I.
getting into a description of the strikes it’s useful to review the role
streetcars played during this period. Automobiles were only in their infancy as
practical transportation. The Kansas City Railways company operated 750
streetcars, with service around the clock, seven days a week. This is three
times as many buses as the Metro operates today during weekday rush-hours, and
this was at a time when the population of the metropolitan area was less than
half the population today. So streetcars played a very vital role in the life of
also necessary to recall the political and economic climate of the times. The
war, of course, brought about a great boom for American industry and established
the United States as the dominant power in the world. This produced mixed
results for the working class of the day. On the one hand virtual full
employment was achieved for a time. In fact1 especially after the U.S. formally
entered the war in April 1917, it became common for workers in some key
industries, and transportation, to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, to
meet the demands of the war effort. Largely as a result of these long hours,
worker incomes nearly doubled in the .period of 1914-18.
the same period also saw tremendous inflation—consumer prices
rose 79 percent—and this inflation continued for another couple of
years after the war before finally flattening out in the early ‘20s. Hourly
wage rates did not match this inflation even during the war and when working
hours were cut back after the war living standards were hit hard. This
precipitated a huge strike wave during 1919.
federal government developed unprecedented intervention in labor affairs. Their
main declared motive was to maintain labor peace in order to ensure
uninterrupted wartime production. But clearly they were also not
unsympathetic to employer concerns that organized labor would take advantage of
the situation to obtain big gains in wages and working conditions. In pursuit of
these objectives, the Woodrow Wilson administration worked to co-opt labor
officials into the regulatory process.
there was wide-spread opposition to American involvement in the war in Europe
among the ranks of labor, most national union officials eagerly accepted
Wilson’s invitation. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of
Labor, joined the Council on National Defense, which was established even before
U.S. formal entry into the war, and played a central role in the development of
a series of government agencies regulating labor relations in various
efforts were not completely successful. 1917 saw more strikes than anytime in
history up to that point. In March 1918, the War Labor Board was established
with jurisdiction over virtually the entire economy. This board was comprised of
five representatives of employers, five from labor, and two “neutrals.” One
of its principles was that there. should be no strikes or lockouts for the
duration of the war. The board would make recommendations for resolving all
labor disputes though it had no legal authority to enforce its decisions. In
practice, the unions always abided by the board’s rulings but the employers
sometimes ignored them.
supporting this approach, Gompers gent a letter to all AF of L officials
stating, “No strike ought to be inaugurated that cannot be justified to the
men facing momentary death. A strike during the war is not justified unless
principles are involved equally fundamental as those for which fellow citizens
have offered their lives . .”
should also know something about the general character of the main streetcar
workers union of the day—the Amalgamated As-association of Streetcar and
Electric Railwaymen—the original name of the present Amalgamated Transit
union. The main base of this union were the motormen and conductors. The
Amalgamated sought to restrict employment in these jobs to white males only.
Women brief ].y broke through this barrier during the First World War and this
was to be a factor in the final strike. Blacks, however, continued to be
excluded from operating jobs until the 1960s.
national leadership of the Amalgamated was strongly supportive of the Campers
wing of the AF of L. The president, William D. Mahon, was an adamant opponent of
class-struggle tactics practiced by the socialist and syndicalist wings of the
labor movement. He served on the executive committee of the National Civic
Federation, a group bringing together corporate executives, and labor of
officials, with the aim of labor—management cooperation. Mahon favored
arbitration as a method of resolving disputes and, even during peace time, would
authorize strikes only if the employer refused to arbitrate.
be fair, it should be noted that Mahon was not completely inflexible in this
policy. He did sanction, and even encouraged, wartime strikes against the
employment of women as conductors. Evidently
this issue met the test, suggested by Gompers, as a fundamental principle worth
the boys in France dying for.
the parent union of the Kansas City streetcar workers could hardly be seen am a
radical influence. In fact, while the Kansas City local never came into open
defiance with the national union, their tactics, on occasion, certainly deviated
from national policies.
organized labor had a somewhat tenuous presence in Kansas City at the beginning
of the war, the employers were well organized. J. Ogden Armour, the
meat-packing baron, exercised enormous influence from his headquarters in
Chicago. He also happened to be a principal stockholder in the Kansas City
Railways company. Four local businessmen, W.T. Kemper, R.A. Long, J.J. Heim, and
Walter Dickey, dominated the Employer’s Association. This group had a
war-chest of one million dollars set aside to fight unionism.
They had their own private, armed security force, and maintained agencies
to recruit professional strikebreakers. They ran anti-union ads in the local
newspapers, and wrote antilabor sermons f or clergymen who benefited from their
first strike, in August 1917, was brief and successful. Its goal was simply
recognition of the union. Contrary to official government policies, the company
had steadfastly refused dealing with the union. The company, assisted and
encouraged by the Employer’s Association, resisted with professional
strikebreakers. Several hundred scabs were brought in to the Ninth &
Brighton barns on a special train. A
hastily-remodeled abandoned car barn at Tenth & Euclid was to be used as a
barracks. That proved to be the focal point of strike activity.
of strikers and sympathizers fought an all-day battle there and eventually
drove the scabs out of their barn and herded them to Union Station. At the
station the company put them on a train that took them to a siding in rural
3ackson County where the bosses hoped to hold them in reserve for another try.
But the scabs, who by this time had not eaten in more than two days, didn’t
take well to sitting in stifling coaches during the August heat.
Some of them began raiding local farmers, arousing big protests.
The railroad was pressured to move them out and take them back to
wherever they came from. Within a few days the company recognized the union and
the strikers returned to work.
second strike, in March 1918, was not specifically a dispute with the streetcar
company but was in conjunction with a general strike. This general strike was
called in sympathy with striking laundry workers and has been characterized by
historians as the most important of several general strikes in the United States
during the war.
laundry workers were among the lowest-paid, and had among the most miserable
working conditions, of the area’s workforce. Significantly, the male delivery
drivers, and the women launderers, formed a united front in unionizing these
sweatshops. They attracted a great deal of sympathy from not only organized
labor but the entire general public.
laundry workers went on strike in February and were subjected to repeated
violent attacks by the Employer Association armed thugs. After watching this for
five weeks, the rest of the labor movement, including the streetcar workers,
decided to walk out in sympathy with the laundry workers.
streetcar workers were clearly key to keeping the city shut down and the
employer, centered their attention on getting the cars moving. They again
recruited scabs and this time got the assistance of the National Guard. But mass
confrontations with the scabs prevented the company from operating more than a
handful of cars.
its second day, the general strike involved more than 25,000 workers. The
employers realized that this strike could not be simply smashed by thugs, or
even by the police and national guard. They
turned to other sources to pressure the workers to return to work. First federal
government officials warned that the strike was jeopardizing the war effort.
responding immediately was the top leadership of the AF of L.
Gompers dispatched Mahon, the president of the Amalgamated, to Kansas
City. Mahon read the local labor leaders a riot act of his own, along these
lines: Most of the unions involved in this strike are in violation of contracts
with their employers. The contract must be regarded as sacred. If we dishonor
our contracts we will never be able to establish a good relationship with the
employers. It’s especially bad doing this during wartime. You must wrap this strike
up immediately. If you don’t I’m going to order the streetcar workers back
to work and the other international unions will do likewise.
there was much opposition and resentment to this pressure it did have its
effect. After about a week the mayor brokered a compromise settlement: the
laundry bosses agreed to raises for their workers and the Employer’s
Association agreed there would be no reprisals against any workers who took part
in the general strike. The general strike was then lifted.
compromise proved not to be a good one for the laundry workers.
The bosses had agreed to raises but not to union recognition. They
reneged on their pledge to raise wages and also fired key union leaders. Without
union recognition the laundry worker. could do little to enforce the agreement.
They couldn’t even appear before the War Labor Board. The laundry workers
organization soon collapsed.
laundry workers struggle did have some lasting influence on the local labor
movement. The unity between men and women demonstrated by the laundry workers
undoubtedly bad an impact on the streetcar workers.
massive draft of young men into the armed forces, coupled with increased
employment in war-related industries, threatened a labor shortage. Women were
viewed as an important source of reserve labor that could be called upon on a
temporary basis. No one in 1918 was so bold as to suggest that women might
operate streetcars but they were considered for conductor jobs, collecting
fares, issuing transfers, announcing stops.
Kansas City Railways initially hired thirty women conductors in March, 1918,
the. local union, following national practice at the time, threatened a strike,
and then secured a ruling from a government board that there were still
sufficient numbers of men available and women were unneeded. But after the June,
1918 draft call-up, when it became clear that a real labor shortage was
developing, the union agreed to accept women conductors. This was in sharp
contrast to the position taken by most other locals of the Amalgamated who
bitterly, and often successfully, resisted female employment.
the company first announced their plans for hiring women they thought they might
get by paying them only 36 dollar, a month—less than half what men received.
Public protests forced them to modify this somewhat and the actual pay of the
first women workers was 60 dollars a month—about 80 percent of the men’s
scale. The union demanded equal pay and most of the women conductors became
strong union supporters.
first two strikes did not involve the single most important issue for the
workers—wages. The union and the company par-participated in a long series of
hearings before the War Labor Board. Eventually,
the board recommended a substantial wage increase, and equal pay for women
workers. But this advisory opinion was full of qualifications, tying the raises
to fare increases which required approval by various other government agencies.
The company took advantage of the ambiguities in the award, initiated a series
of law suits, and seemed determined to drag the process out as long as possible.
impatient, and seeing the purchasing power of their wages rapidly shrinking due.
to wartime inflation, the streetcar workers voted
to go on strike once again on in December, 1918. 2,675 men and 127 of the 150
newly-hired women conductors, were involved.
time the company dug in for a protracted struggle. The war was now over and
discharged soldiers and sailors were beginning to come home looking f or work.
War-related industries were laying off. So there was a growing pool of
unemployed to augment professional strikebreakers.
company certainly had problems with their replacement workers. On the first day
of operation during the strike a scab motorman lost
control of his car heading down the 12th St. viaduct, and rammed into
the Union Pacific freight house. Two passengers were killed and eight were
seriously injured. Another example of the inexperience of the replacements
occurred on the Indiana line. The motorman lost his trolley connection while
crossing 27th St. He had no trouble climbing to the top of the car,
or in hooking it back up, but the car suddenly took off with him still on the
roof and the conductor standing in the street watching. This time they were
lucky—the car simply derailed without serious injuries. There were also
reports of scab crews wandering the system for hours, unable to find their way
back to the barn.
the company hung tough and slowly but steadily increased service every day. The
police, marshals, and national guard succeeded in blocking the mass
confrontations that had been so effective during the first two strikes. A few
strikers became demoralized and returned to work—eventually 402 of the 2,802
strikers crossed the picket lines.
frustration some strikers turned to guerilla tactics. There were numerous
bombings and derailing of cars. But this harassment couldn’t turn the tide.
The union asked the rest of the labor movement to support them with a general
strike. But other unions were wary after the outcome of the previous general
strike. They pointed out that it was Mahon who had intervened to end that one.
Other unions responded with generous financial support for the strikers but
turned down the proposal for another general strike.
company had 300 cars on the street by January, 1919 and by May they had restored
normal service. 2,400 strikers lost their jobs and the union was completely
the company didn’t have long to gloat about its victory. The six-month strike
was very costly and even after normal service resumed ridership remained off
nearly twenty percent. The next year, 1920, Kansas City Railways was forced into
receivership. Eventually, the
company was reorganized, under new management, as the Public Service Company.
strike was a big defeat for transit workers who remained without union
protection for more than twenty years. But as attrition created a new workforce
unionism took hold once more. In 1941
the Amalgamated once again won recognition. Since then labor peace has
prevailed with only one strike, lasting but two days, in 1962.
Alexander N. War-time Strikes and Their Adjustment, New York:
Philip S. Labor and World War I, New York: International Publishers, 1987.
Postwar Struggles 1915-20, New York: International Publishers, 1988.
Naurine Weiner. Women, War, and Work Westport:
Calvin. ‘When Kansas City Was Left Afoot,’ Kansas City limes, December 12,
Century of Public Transit Woes,” Kansas City Times, April 9, 1971.
Stephen. With One Voice … A
century of Service to Missouri’ a Workers, Jefferson City:
Missouri AFL-CIO, 1991.