Bring in the Bayonets: Philly Strike Has Violent History

FDR threatened Philly transit strikers with the draft and bayonet-bearing troops in WW II

As the city's transit strike drags into its fourth day, tempers are frayed, commuter trains are packed, streets are clogged and some residents remain virtually stranded at home.

It could be worse.

During World War II, federal troops armed with bayonets and rifles gave striking Philadelphia transit employees an ultimatum:
Get back to work or be drafted.

And there wasn't much brotherly love in the city in 1910, when a transportation strike led to riots, about two dozen deaths and the destruction of hundreds of trolleys.

The current walkout will surely cause economic and political damage, but Philadelphia is unlikely to see the strong-arm tactics and strike-related violence seen in decades past, historians and labor experts say.

“Strikes are less violent because we're a wealthy society,” said Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Violence is more painful if you have more to lose.”

Buses, subways and trolleys have been idle since Tuesday, when about 5,000 employees of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority walked off the job over disagreements on wages, pension and health care issues.

Negotiations resumed Thursday evening and continued Friday morning. Gov. Ed Rendell said he hoped an agreement would have trains and buses running by Friday night.

In the early days of the labor movement, part of the vitriol stemmed from workers refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the capitalist system, said Sean Flaherty, an economics professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

Since then, federal labor laws have codified many issues at the crux of previous strikes. And lawyers and consultants now do much of the wrangling in courtrooms and boardrooms, Flaherty said.

Contrast that with the mayhem on the streets of Philadelphia in February 1910 after trolley workers--demanding better wages, hours and the right to organize--struck the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Co. Eventually, about 250,000 workers in other industries walked out as well, said James Wolfinger, an associate professor of history at DePaul University in Chicago.

The strike wreaked havoc in the city, leading to riots, violence, arrests, the smashing and burning of trolleys, and about two dozen deaths. It ended six weeks later when sympathy strikers returned to their jobs; trolley workers essentially gave up on their demands, Wolfinger said.

Transit workers struck again in August 1944 to protest the hiring and promotion of African-Americans.

In the heat of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to let the nation's third-largest manufacturing city be crippled by a strike, said Wolfinger, author of “Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love.”

Roosevelt sent about 5,000 troops to the city, and striking employees were threatened with being sent to the war front if they didn't return to their jobs, Wolfinger said. The strike ended within a week, and workplace integration began.

Labor relations today are more mature, with both sides accustomed to the negotiation process, said Hamermesh.

“It's like dancing with somebody,” said Hamermesh. “You're not going to step on each other's feet as much because you know the moves.”

This week's SEPTA strike is the third since 1998 and, despite some name-calling, has been peaceful. A fire on a non-striking regional rail line on Wednesday was found to be electrical and not suspicious, SEPTA officials said.

Members of the Transport Workers Union Local 234, who earn an average of $52,000 a year, have been working without a contract since March. Before striking, they had sought a 9 percent wage hike over four years and to keep the current 1 percent contribution they make toward the cost of health care coverage, union officials say.

SEPTA had offered an 11.5 percent wage increase over five years, with a $1,250 signing bonus in the first year, and increases in pension contributions from workers.

The union says the raises would be less than that because of the proposed increase in pension contributions.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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