The nation celebrated Labor Day on Monday, which is a good time to recount the significant role that Sedalia played in labor history.
Two major railroad strikes erupted in the mid-1880s, and Sedalia was heavily involved in both of them.
My main source is the book, “Defending a Way of Life,” by Michael Cassity, available at the Sedalia Public Library. The book, published in 1989, tells how a 19th century agrarian community was forced to come to grips with the rise of industrial capitalism. That community was Sedalia, Missouri.
Cassity examined various aspects of his subject, but my focus will be on the two railroad strikes and how they impacted Sedalia.
The first occurred in March 1885, when the Knights of Labor (great name) struck Jay Gould’s Southwestern System. Gould, a New York stock speculator, collected railroads like some people collect stamps. He’s known as one of the “robber barons” in the age of unbridled capitalism.
Among other lines, Gould had gained control of the Missouri Pacific, the Wabash, and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroads. Every line serving Sedalia was a Gould line, and competition on freight rates disappeared, much to the dismay of local businessmen.
Gould was virtually asking for a strike by cutting wages, increasing work hours and firing veteran employees. The strikers sought only to have their wages and hours returned to what they were six months earlier.
The Knights in Sedalia kept strict discipline during the strike, protecting railroad property from damage, pledging to uphold law and order, and going to church en masse on Sundays. Workers even swore off drinking for the duration of the strike.
Not long after the strike began, Gould caved in and it was settled. It was a victory for the Knights of Labor well as Sedalia, which had supported the strikers’ cause.
Almost exactly a year later the Knights called another strike against the same lines, but one much more extensive and very different from the first one. Where the first strike involved local issues of concern to Sedalians, the 1886 strike, which is known as the Great Southwest Railroad Strike, began far away in Texas for reasons that few in Sedalia fully understood or supported.
The strike was called by a firebrand labor organizer named Martin Irons, who headed District Assembly 101 of the Knights, based in Sedalia. More than 200,000 workers on Gould’s Southwestern System walked out in five states: Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas, bringing traffic to a halt.
Little Sedalia played a big role in the strike, as Cassity explains: “Because of the initiative taken by its workers, because of the importance of the shops for operation of the system, and because the governor had singled it out as the scene of an expected confrontation between strikers and militia, Sedalia became the nerve-center of the strike.”
But the community wasn’t with the strikers this time, and they could sense it. Where the first strike was peaceful, the second was violent, with 10 men killed in clashes and tracks sabotaged. That didn’t help the Knights’ cause in Sedalia and elsewhere, and, along with other factors, led to the strike’s failure. The Knights of Labor had suffered its first defeat, which contributed to its demise over the next few years.
Founded in 1869 as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, it was part labor union and part fraternal organization, with strong religious overtones, and was philosophically opposed to strikes. But organized labor was moving in another direction, with the American Federation of Labor poised to soon unseat the Knights.
I suspect there may be some memorabilia of the Knights of Labor tucked away in attics in east Sedalia. They would make a great addition to the railroad museum in the Katy Depot.