From the 1992 Kansas City Labor History Bus Tour

The Streetcar Strikes of 1917-18        

by Bill Onasch

There were three important transit strikes in Kansas City during, and immediately following, World War I.

Before 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 the city.

It’s 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.

But 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.

The 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.

While 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 industries. 

Initial 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.

Fully 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 . .”

We 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.

The 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.

To 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.

So 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. 

While 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 generosity.        

The 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.

Thousands 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

By 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.

Also 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

When 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.

When 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.

These 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.

Growing 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.

This 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.

The third strike was a bitter one. All the weight of government was brought down on the side of the employer, On the Missouri side the state militia was mobilized to protect scabs. On the Kansas side this was done by U.S. marshals. A federal grand jury indicted the union leadership for conspiring to obstruct a vital industry during wartime—although the war was of course already over.

The 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.

But 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.

In 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.

The 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 smashed.

But 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.

The 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.

Bibliography

Bing, Alexander N. War-time Strikes and Their Adjustment, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1921.

Foner, Philip S. Labor and World War I, New York: International Publishers, 1987.

_______________ Postwar Struggles 1915-20, New York: International Publishers, 1988.

Greenwalcl, Naurine Weiner. Women, War, and Work Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Kanon, Calvin. ‘When Kansas City Was Left Afoot,’ Kansas City limes, December 12, 1958.

“A Century of Public Transit Woes,” Kansas City Times, April 9, 1971.        

McIntyre, Stephen.  With One Voice … A century of Service to Missouri’ a Workers, Jefferson City:  Missouri AFL-CIO, 1991.