1892 New Orleans general strike
The New Orleans general strike was a general strike
General strike
A general strike is a strike action by a critical mass of the labour force in a city, region, or country. While a general strike can be for political goals, economic goals, or both, it tends to gain its momentum from the ideological or class sympathies of the participants...

 in the U.S.
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 city of New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is a major United States port and the largest city and metropolitan area in the state of Louisiana. The New Orleans metropolitan area has a population of 1,235,650 as of 2009, the 46th largest in the USA. The New Orleans – Metairie – Bogalusa combined statistical area has a population...

, that began on November 8, 1892. Despite appeals to racial hatred, black and white workers remained united. The general strike ended on November 12, with unions
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 gaining most of their original demands.

The Triple alliance

Early in 1892, streetcar conductors in New Orleans won a shorter workday and the preferential closed shop
Closed shop
A closed shop is a form of union security agreement under which the employer agrees to hire union members only, and employees must remain members of the union at all times in order to remain employed....

. This victory drove many New Orleans workers to seek assistance from the American Federation of Labor
American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...

 (AFL). As many as 30 new labor unions had been organized in the city before the summer of 1892. By late summer, 49 unions belonged to the AFL. The unions established a central labor council known as the Workingmen's Amalgamated Council that represented more than 20,000 workers. Three racially integrated unions—the Teamsters
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is a labor union in the United States and Canada. Formed in 1903 by the merger of several local and regional locals of teamsters, the union now represents a diverse membership of blue-collar and professional workers in both the public and private sectors....

, the Scalesmen, and the Packers—made up what came to be called the "Triple Alliance." Many of the workers belonging to the unions of the Triple Alliance were African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...


On October 24, 1892, between 2,000 and 3,000 members of the Triple Alliance struck to win a 10-hour work day, overtime pay, and the preferential union shop
Union shop
A union shop is a form of a union security clause under which the employer agrees to hire either labor union members or nonmembers but all non-union employees must become union members within a specified period of time or lose their jobs...

. The Amalgamated Council wholeheartedly supported them.

The New Orleans Board of Trade, representing financial and commercial interests, appointed a committee to make decisions for the employers. The four main railways that served the city and the large cotton, sugar and rice commodity exchanges pledged their support for the Board of Trade. They helped raise a defense fund and asked the state governor to send in the militia to help break the strike. No negotiations took place during the first week.

Employers utilized race-based appeals to try to divide the workers and turn the public against the strikers. The board of trade announced it would sign contracts agreeing to the terms—but only with the white-dominated Scalesmen and Packers unions. The Board of Trade refused to sign any contract with the black-dominated Teamsters. The Board of Trade and the city's newspapers also began a campaign designed to create public hysteria. The newspapers ran lurid accounts of "mobs of brutal Negro strikers" rampaging through the streets, of African American unionists "beating up all who attempted to interfere with them," and repeated accounts of crowds of blacks assaulting lone white men and women.

The striking workers refused to break ranks along racial lines. Large majorities of the Scalesmen and Packers unions passed resolutions affirming their commitment to stay out until the employers had signed a contract with the Teamsters on the same terms offered to other unions.

The general strike

Members of other unions began to call for a general strike to support the Triple Alliance. A number of meetings were held, during which sentiment proved so strong that a majority of the unions belonging to the Amalgamated Council voted in favor of a resolution calling for a general strike. A Committee of Five was formed to lead the general strike. Its members included the Cotton Screwmen's Union, the Cotton Yardmen's Union, the Printers, the Boiler Makers
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers
The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers is a trade union in the United States and Canada. It is for boilermakers and related occupations, and is affiliated with both the AFL-CIO and CLC....

, and the Car Driver's Union.

Union pressure increased and a call for a general strike arose. Under the threat, some employers not party to the original dispute broke and pressed the board for negotiations. A tentative agreement collapsed and the Workingman's Council again called for a general strike, which began on November 8 after two postponements. Each of the 46 unions which joined the strike demanded the union shop and recognition of their union. Some also asked for shorter work-days or higher pay. Nearly 25,000 union members—half the city's workforce and virtually all its unionized workers—struck. Streetcars
A tram is a passenger rail vehicle which runs on tracks along public urban streets and also sometimes on separate rights of way. It may also run between cities and/or towns , and/or partially grade separated even in the cities...

 stopped running. Recently organized utility workers, against the demands of the governor and the advice of the labor committee joined the strike,. The city's supply of natural gas failed on November 8, as did the electrical grid, and the city was plunged into darkness. The delivery of food and beverages immediately ceased, generating alarm among city residents. Construction, printing, street cleaning, manufacturing and even fire-fighting services ground to a halt.

On November 9, the press intensified their appeals to racial hatred. The New Orleans Times-Democrat declared that African American strikers wanted to "take over the city" (a veiled reference to black sexual assaults on white women) and that white women and children were already being harassed by black strikers.

But the press' appeal to racial hatred failed. Violent incidents never occurred, and picket lines were so quiet that the Board of Trade sent men into the streets to try to find evidence of any physical intimidation whatsoever. The employers, with assistance from the railroads, brought strikebreakers in from Galveston and Memphis. But when a call by the mayor for special deputies turned up only 59 volunteers, the employers began training their own clerks and managers for riot duty, offering to pay any costs for a state militia call-up. The mayor issued a proclamation forbidding public gatherings, essentially declaring martial law. Although the city was quiet, the Board of Trade convinced the racist
Racism is the belief that inherent different traits in human racial groups justify discrimination. In the modern English language, the term "racism" is used predominantly as a pejorative epithet. It is applied especially to the practice or advocacy of racial discrimination of a pernicious nature...

Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

 Governor, Murphy J. Foster
Murphy J. Foster
Murphy James Foster, Sr. , was a Louisiana politician who served two terms as the 31st Governor of Louisiana from 1892 to 1900.Early and personal life...

, to send in the state militia
Louisiana National Guard
The Louisiana National Guard consists of the:*Louisiana Army National Guard** includes the U.S. 256th Infantry Brigade*Louisiana Air National Guard-External links:*** compiled by the United States Army Center of Military History...

 on November 10. But instead of a city under siege, militia leaders found the city calm and orderly. Governor Foster was forced to withdraw the militia on November 11.

The strength of the strike was reflected in the decline of bank clearings in New Orleans to half their pre-strike levels.

The settlement

The Board of Trade agreed to binding arbitration to settle the strike. Although they balked at first, the employers agreed to sit down with both white and black union leaders.

After 48 hours of negotiations, the employers agreed to the 10-hour day and overtime pay, but not the union shop, nor would they grant recognition to the unions of the Triple Alliance. Other unions also won reduced hours and higher pay.


The Board of Trade was deeply angered by its humiliation during the general strike. On November 13, 1892, the Board of Trade induced a federal prosecutor to file suit in federal court against 44 of the unions belonging to the Amalgamated Council. The federal government accused the unions of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act
Sherman Antitrust Act
The Sherman Antitrust Act requires the United States federal government to investigate and pursue trusts, companies, and organizations suspected of violating the Act. It was the first Federal statute to limit cartels and monopolies, and today still forms the basis for most antitrust litigation by...

 by engaging in a conspiracy to restrain trade and 45 strike leaders were indicted in federal court for violating the act. A district court granted a temporary injunction against the unions. The AFL appealed the case. The injunction was stayed, and the suit delayed for several years. The federal government quietly withdrew its suit several years later.

The 1892 general strike helped strengthen the labor movement in New Orleans. Most existing unions gained substantial numbers of members. Three new unions formed during the general strike and affiliated with the Amalgamated Council.

Varying assessments

At the time, the 1892 general strike was considered a success, demonstrating that black and white workers could maintain solidarity in the Deep South
Deep South
The Deep South is a descriptive category of the cultural and geographic subregions in the American South. Historically, it is differentiated from the "Upper South" as being the states which were most dependent on plantation type agriculture during the pre-Civil War period...

. The strikers had avoided violence, won most of their demands, avoided military repression, and succeeded in overcoming racial hatred. Samuel Gompers
Samuel Gompers
Samuel Gompers was an English-born American cigar maker who became a labor union leader and a key figure in American labor history. Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor , and served as that organization's president from 1886 to 1894 and from 1895 until his death in 1924...

However, subsequent analyses declared the strike a failure, and that unions had "sold out" workers because the unions failed to win the union shop. Just a month later, The New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

editorialized: "Labor's Defeat In New-Orleans; The Victory of the Employers Complete." Many histories written in the next 40 years suggested that the strike's "massive" failure led the AFL to reject general strikes absolutely thereafter and remain intensively hostile even to limited strikes.

More recently, however, historians have re-assessed the strike's success. Declared one historian, "The failure of the strikers to win a preferential union shop did not detract from the significance of the struggle." The success of the workers in overcoming racial divisions in one of the major cities of the Deep South is notable (and would rarely be achieved again until the 1960s), as is the unification of skilled and unskilled worker.

See also

  • New Orleans Dock Workers and Unionization
    New Orleans dock workers and unionization
    -Overview:Dockworkers in the United States city of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century often coordinated their unionization efforts across racial lines...

  • Labor history of the United States
    Labor history of the United States
    The labor history of the United States describes the history of organized labor, as well as the more general history of working people, in the United States. Pressures dictating the nature and power of organized labor have included the evolution and power of the corporation, efforts by employers...

  • Labour movement and racial equality
  • Colored National Labor Union
    Colored National Labor Union
    The Colored National Labor Union arrived shortly after the development of the National Labor Union, which happened to be the first major organization founded by Andrew Cameron in 1866. The National Labor Union was dedicated with helping unions such as construction and other skilled groups and even...

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