The Springfield Street Car Strike of 1916-1917

From Neal Moore's Labor Unions in the Ozarks:

A Brief Look at the Street Car Strike of 1916-17

One of the outstanding events in the history of the Springfield labor movement was the 252-day strike by the street car workers in 1916-17 in which they not only won the right to organize a union and bargain collectively for their members, but led the way for street car workers' organization in the rest of Missouri.

At the turn of the century the one great area in industrial America in which there was no union organization was the street car industry. An effort by the St. Louis street car workers to organize a union in 1900 was ruthlessly and violently opposed by management. A call by the county sheriff for a thousand volunteers to be deputized to rid the streets of St. Louis of strikers brought forth a wave of response from the business community. In a short time there were a dozen dead and over 200 wounded. With such a terrible cost, it put an end to any thought by Missouri's street car workers to try to organize a union for the next 15 years.

By 1916, however, Springfield street car workers, with the strong backing of State AFL President "Rube" Wood and the whole Springfield labor movement, were ready to try to organize a union.

There is not space here to chronicle the events of the resulting 252-day strike.

The primary difference that set the Springfield street car workers' strike apart from other transit workers unionization efforts in other cities over the United States during period was the position of the Springfield public officials (primarily that of Mayor J. J. Gideon, a native of Christian county, and Chief of Police Barney Rathbone, whose father established Rathbone Hardware Store on Commercial Street -- a store that is still in business today). With the backing of the city council, these two refused to join the management of the Springfield Traction Company in crushing the union.

The traction company responded by filing a $200,000 damage suit against Gideon and Rathbone. The final blow to the traction company, however, came in the spring of 1917 when a recall election to remove Gideon from office failed. Apparently convinced they might as well recognize the union, the traction company immediately resumed negotiation and a contract was signed soon after.

About two months later the Kansas City street car workers started their organization drive. The St. Louis street car workers organized their union the following year.

Picket Duty in the Street Car Strike

Bob Andrews' experience on the picket line during the 1916-17 Springfield street car strike was a demonstration of the high emotions and strong opinions that prevailed during that strike.

The trial proceedings of O.E. Jennings, the recognized strike leader on that occasion, reveal in vivid detail a number of incidents relating to the conduct of the strike. The Springfield Traction Company had succeeded, finally, in getting a sweeping injunction against Springfield union members and their friends from interfering with the operation of the street car system by the non-union strikebreakers. Jennings was brought to trial, and subsequently found guilty, of violating this injunction. The proceedings are part of the Francis M. Wilson papers, housed in the archives of the Missouri State Historical Society of Columbia and make most interesting reading.

This particular testimony discussed in the trial related to an event that occurred on January 31, 1917, when Bob Andrews and a man named Fender were on picket duty on the corner of Springfield Avenue and Turner. The two men on the street car, strikebreakers, were Hensley and Burney.

One witness testified:

"Well, on that afternoon I was up to the hall on Commercial Street and Mr. Jennings came down there and said they telephoned the labor office that there had been some trouble and he said, 'Let's go get the troop on it.' We met Mr. Smith and got a jitney and went out there and we asked the boys what had occurred and just about that time a car came out there and Bob Andrews, the fellow that got beat up, said, 'Why don't you gang up on me now?' and Hensley said, 'You S.O.B., I will get you by yourself.' Someone said there was a rock thrown, but I was standing within two feet of Jennings and never did see the rock thrown.

Q. You say Bob Andrews got beat up and you went out there to see about it?
A. Yes sir. When we got there his mouth was bleeding.
Q. And it was a fresh bruise?
A. Yes sir."

Andrews, in his own testimony about the incident, said:

"I had just come from eating my dinner and was standing on the corner of the east side of the boulevard in front of Murphy Bros. Store and this car came along. Hensley was on the back platform and he said to me, 'What are you doing here, you little S.O.B.?' And I said, 'I don't know that is anything to you.' And then he said, 'I am going to whip you,' and he got off his car and hit me and I was trying to defend myself and Burney came up and knocked me down.

Q. Did either of them have a gun?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Did they pull them?
A. Burney pulled his gun and struck at me with is, but I don't think he hit me.
Q. Where did he hit when he knocked you down?
A. On the face. Knocked me down and then he hit me on the temple."

Bob Andrews was a native of Christian County, who, after moving to Springfield, had worked for the Springfield Traction Company for five or six years at the time the strike started in 1916. He was the father of Essie DeCamp, and active worker in the Transit Workers Auxiliary and the Women's Union Label League, whose husband for many years was secretary of Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 691.

The Role of Springfield, Missouri City Official in the Successful 1916-1917 Street Car Strike

The May 1982 issue of the American Association for State and Local History monthly publication, History News, ran an ad for the University of Arizona Press, promoting a book, Forging The Copper Collar, by James W. Byrkit, with the following copy:

"Running the Wobblies out of Bisbee took more than guns . . . It took power. And the copper barons had what it took: Arizona's banks and newspapers, and by 1917 its legislature and governor as well. Small wonder, then, that when the I.W.W. called a strike against the Copper Queen mine, 2000 vigilantes were able to run nearly 1200 people out of town-and get away with it. All but forgotten after 65 years, the Bisbee Deportation has been meticulously researched by James Byrkit to demonstrate its real significance: the power of Eastern business interests to manipulate events in the West."

The year, 1917, is of significance to Springfield, Missouri, because it was that year that events in a long 252-day strike by the Springfield street car workers were coming to a head. Instead of manipulating events in Springfield, the Springfield Traction Company, owned by Eastern business interests, had brought a $200,000 damage suit against the mayor and the chief of police, charging them with failure to protect company property. An effort to remove the mayor from office through a recall election failed, following which the company went back into negotiations with the union and soon signed a contract granting union recognition, permanently establishing one of Springfield's prominent union organizations.

The University of Arizona Press, in its reach for a sensational statement in its ad that would capture attention, and limited by space to only a few words, of course, oversimplified a very complex economic, social, and political struggle. The I.W.W., with its radical revolutionary philosophy, was a highly controversial union organization, a very emotional issue which was heightened with America's entry into World War I. And even more important is the question of why public citizens, some of whom made up the 2000-member vigilante group, and the Bisbee and Arizona public officials were willing to be manipulated by the Eastern business interests, to use the advertisement's language, or perhaps even to be willing collaborators with those business interests in driving the union members out of town.

It well could be that the citizens of Bisbee, Arizona, were ardent supporters of the American free enterprise system, ready to take whatever action was necessary to eradicate dangerous and damaging philosophies detrimental to these values, ready to do whatever they could to support the national war effort and to promote the general welfare through employment in a socially useful business enterprise - and that the owners of the Arizona copper mines provided them the opportunity to do this.

Society in large measure not only defines the options available in the determination of our goals, but also, through its laws and its customs, prescribes the means we may use to achieve these objectives - some activities approved by the law or custom, other actions may not be approved, but are tolerated. While labor history may confine itself largely to the conflict between the unions and management, there are two other groups that are quite important, and often play a decisive role in the outcome of a labor-management controversy: the general public, and the public official structure backed by its policing authority. Not only has public opinion about the rights of workers to unionize changed over the years, along with the use of public police powers to enforce this opinion, but these have varied greatly from community to community. Springfield's experience was not that of Bisbee, Arizona.

Labor historians have noted that at the turn of the century the one great area of American industrial life that was not unionized was the metropolitan transit systems. The metropolitan systems, according to labor historian Gary M. Fink, has developed a sophisticated procedure, which, with the aid of sympathetic public officials, effectively prevented the unionization of their workers.

In the year 1900 there was a street car strike in St. Louis that was put down with such violence, according to Prof. Fink, that it stopped all thought of union organization in Missouri for the next 15 years. Then it was decided, he said, to try to establish an organization, and Springfield was chosen as the best place to make that effort, for four reasons: There was a strong labor movement there, it was the home of the president of the Missouri State Federation of Labor, the traction company was owned by out-of-state financial interests, and finally, the city administration was sympathetic to unions.

To say that "it was decided" to start at Springfield suggests that there was a monolithic organization of unions in Missouri that arbitrarily decided when and where union activities would take place. There is every reason to believe that it was the workers of the Springfield Traction Company themselves who decided to attempt an organization, and that encouragement and support of other Springfield unions came spontaneously.

Springfield for a number of years had been the site of an aggressive, growing trade union movement. With the Locomotive Engineers, the Cigar Makers, the Typographers, and early organization of the Carpenters, and the Central Labor Council already organized in the 1880s, there was a surge of organization at the turn of the century. The Molders organized the Bricklayers in 1902, the Electricians and the Bakers in 1905, and the Stage Hands in 1906.

In addition, Springfield and the Ozarks was producing an impressive coterie of strong leadership, not only on the local level, but on the state and national level. H.A.W. Juneman, described as the "father" of the Springfield labor movement, is credited with organizing the Springfield Cigar Makers and the Springfield Central Labor Council. He was a delegate at the organization meeting of the Missouri State Federation of Labor in 1891, and was respected statewide for his leadership.

Charles Wilkerson, a charter member of the Molders in 1898, was given credit for his statewide activities in promoting a successful convention of the Missouri State Federation of labor in Springfield in 1904. He became an international representative for his union, in 1912 was elected a vice president of his International Union.

A charter member of the Stage Hands in 1906 went on to become a vice president of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.

To be remembered, also, in addition to this, is that the passage of the Clayton Act in 1914 served as an impetus, nationwide, for increased activities in unionization efforts.

In this setting, the Springfield street car workers, early in 1916, organized their union. After a short strike, the traction company agreed on reorganization and signed a contract. A few months later, however, the traction company fired the union secretary, Stanley Jones. When the union's demand that Jones be reinstated was rejected by the traction company, the union went on strike in October. It was the beginning of a strike that was to last 252 days.

According to the customs of the times, the roles of both management and the union were fairly predictable.

Confronted with a work stoppage by its union employees, the traction company kept operations going by hiring non-union workers (or, in union terminology, strike breakers or scabs). They hired company guards, alleged to have been brought in from Chicago. Injunction protection from the court system was sought and achieved. Few concessions were made in negotiations as talks dragged on and finally stalled.

On the union side, picketing was established and public assistance for a boycott sought. Moral and financial support came from other Springfield unions. A daily labor paper was established to promote the union's point of view.

In matters of violence, both sides pushed at the perimeters of tolerance - particularly the tolerance of the policing agencies of the community - in trying to establish an effective position for their cause.

The variables in this case were public opinion, and the position of the city administration officials. Their somewhat non-judgmental position was in stark contrast to the strong partisan, pro-business positions taken by these agencies in many of the industrial disputes in other parts of the country.

A concerned group of business people, instead of seeing themselves as an agency to help put down the strike, tried instead to set up a community organization to mediate the strike and invited union members to attend the organizational meeting. Its work was ineffective. The transit company boycott generally was observed. Business men extended credit to striking union workers. A business sponsored effort to remove Mayor Gideon from office in a recall election failed to win the enthusiastic kind of partisan support necessary to win.

More important to the outcome of the strike was the manner in which the police powers of the community were applied. That a primary function of the police powers of a community is to protect property is such a basic principle of our political philosophy that we tend to take it for granted and are unaware of the effect of variations in its application.

It was the pro-business application of such police powers which led Mother Jones, when she was thrown in a basement jail cell in the 1914 Colorado coal mine strike, to declare that the law always came down against the worker. It was in this same strike that the governor of Colorado was quoted as telling a union official that he would not protect the strikers because they were armed, but that he would support the mine owners because they had a right to protect their property.

It was the application of this philosophy that led Machinists International Union President William Winpisinger to state on a recent Phil Donahue show that in no industrial nation in the world has there been so much violence directed against the working people as in the United States. The procedure by which this done was, in many instances, to deputize the company guards, to legalize their actions against striking union workers, and to back this with the action of the city's police system, the National Guard, and in some instances, federal troops.

American labor history is replete with accounts of this philosophy, names of unsuccessful organizational efforts, many times with the word "massacre" associated with the name; the 1886 Knights of Labor strike in East St. Louis, the Lattimer mine massacre in 1898, the Pullman strike, the Homestead strike, the state militia in Baltimore and Chicago, the Lawrence, Massachusetts, bread and roses strike, and many, many others.

An indication that it was going to be different in Springfield came early in the strike. After the traction company brought in its guards to start patrolling the streets, there was an outbreak of violence. The traction company went to the Southern District of the federal district court for an injunction, but had it denied with the notation that the violence did not start until after the company had brought in outside company guards and that the company "did not come to the court with clean hands."

The company later did succeed in getting an injunction, going this time to the Western District, before Judge Arba W. Van Valkenburgh. It was a very sweeping injunction and had it been rigidly enforced, could well have defeated the strike.

In Missouri there seems to have been little of the radical political movements such as in Kansas when, in 1892, a Populist governor was elected, or as in Oklahoma which, in 1914, had more dues paying members of the Socialist party than any other state in the union. That there may have been some latent potential for such political philosophy in Missouri, however, is suggested in frequent notations about anti-business sentiment in rural areas of the state.

At the time of the street car strike, the Springfield city council, while not necessarily anti-business, certainly was not to be considered a hand maiden of the corporate power structure. This was demonstrated early in the strike when the city council passed a resolution noting that the traction company's guards had armed themselves and were patrolling the streets, taking over the police duties of the city in violation of the state constitution, and requested that the traction company discharge these guards.

The question has been raised, asking if the city administration was pro-union. If the duty of the police force was to protect the company from any interference from the striking union members and their supporters, and to take aggressive action toward strike activities to break the strike, then these public officials might be described as pro-union. Springfield attorney Fred Moon, who served as city attorney during this strike period, said that all the city administration wanted to do was to preserve law and order. In actual practice, the city administration seems to have followed a rather neutral, hands-off policy toward both the company and the union. In Moon's interpretation, he explained that in a strike of this kind there was bound to be some violence and there was some rock throwing, stuff like that. But, he went on to explain, it wasn't bad. Describing a dynamiting on the Monroe street line, Moon said that it wasn't a striker, nor was it a strike breaker that set off the dynamite, but "some damn nut" that did it for the excitement.

During the strike there was there was violence on both sides. Street cars had windows smashed with rocks. Non-union street car operators were harassed, trolley connections were disconnected, large gatherings of union people would block and disrupt street car movement. There were two instances of dynamiting, which in many cities would have been an automatic excuse to round up and jail large numbers of union members as part of a conspiracy that resulted in the dynamitings.

On the traction company's side, one of the non-union operators on a car at the corner of Grant and Commercial shot a union member and put him in the hospital for at least a month. There is reference to another union member shot, but the details are not clear. Essie DeCamp, whose father was beat up by a non-union operator and conductor, says that as a result of his injuries this second man drew a pension for a long-long time. One woman offered a $500 reward for the identification of the scab motorman who fired three pistol shots at her 11-year-old daughter.

There were numerous occasions in which the police, had they followed a type of anti-union policy prevalent in many cities, could have made a large number of arrests on charges of unlawful assembly, harassment, peace disturbance, assault, destruction of property; but there was little of this done. On one occasion a fight broke out between union members and non-union workers in a courtroom at the county courthouse. There was no notation of any arrests being made in this melee.

The Ludlow massacre of 1914, when the Colorado National Guard on Easter morning gunned a camp of striking mine workers at Ludlow and then marched in and put the camp to the torch, burning 14 women and children to death, was a stark reminder that the same thing could have happened in Springfield had the police system been motivated by strong anti-union sentiments.

In the spring of 1917, 15 Springfield policemen on Commercial Street faced an angry mob of 700 union members and their friends, according to the daily press, who had stopped a street car and were throwing rocks at the car and shooting guns through the windows. The labor press, of course, had a different version. According to this report, there were only half that many on the street, and there was no rock throwing and no guns.

The police, in this instance, might well have tried to immediately disperse the crowd, and to use their guns to do so, as had been the experience in numerous other situations like this in other cities. Instead, however, they got the crowd moving. They crowd came to the corner of Commercial and Boonville, then turned south on Boonville, headed, ostensibly, for the car barn just a short four blocks away. Before they got to the barns, however, they finally were persuaded to stop and disperse.

Moon, in describing how an assistant city attorney from his office had assisted in halting and dispersing the mob, went on to say that it was a good thing the mob had been stopped, because the traction company had brought in a tough bunch of cookies from the east, that they were down at the car barns with rifles, shotguns and machine guns, and that if the mob had gone on down there, there would have been no telling how many killed. "It was a lucky day for us," Moon said.

The lack of aggressiveness of the city administration in putting down the strike, however, was not satisfactory to the Springfield Traction Company. In the spring of 1917 the company filed a $200,000 damage suite against Mayor Gideon and the Chief of Police Rathbone for failure to protect the company's property. About the same time a group of some 30 citizens, drawn largely from the south side business community sympathetic to the company, started circulating the petitions calling for a recall to remove Mayor Gidean from office.

The recall election may have been a tactical mistake for the company and its supporters. The strike already had gone on for seven months - the town was growing weary of it and the union's position was slowly eroding. The union, although not being aggressively harassed by the city police, was being caught up in a slow process of legal pressure. Alvis Jennings, brother of strike leader O.E. Jennings, was in jail for firing a rifle through a street car. Another man was in jail for peace disturbance and later was to be sentenced to the penitentiary for perjury. A second grand jury was in the process of questioning a large number of witnesses connected with the strike. O.E. Jennings himself was being brought to trial in Kansas City for violation of the injunction.

The people wanted to get back on the street cars, and business men, even those supporting the strikers with credit arrangement, were wanting to see the dispute resolved. Union support, especially by those contributing financial support for the striking transit workers, was slowly dwindling. Some of the striking workers had left town, some found other jobs with statements that they would never go back to the street car company.

And there were no successes in this long stalemate to which the union could point to bolster morale. With a constitution of its policy of resistance, the traction company would well have worn down the union until it finally gave up in discouragement, leaving the company free to rebuild its street car business.

The recall election produced a cause around which the unions could rally. The working class wards on the north side were centers of a massive registration campaign. Charles Wilkerson, a charter member of the Springfield Molders Union, and by this time a vice president of the Molders International Union, returned to Springfield, and, with State Federation of Labor President Reuben Wood, joined Mayor Gideon on the platform as he campaigned to retain his seat. When the votes were in, Mayor Gideon retained his seat with a 159-vote majority.

No records have been found stating that it was this election that persuaded the traction company to give up and start negotiating with the union. Perhaps if the old records of the Springfield Traction Company, thought to be files of Springfield City Utilities, are ever made public, they may throw some light on this. It is known, however, that negotiations did resume immediately after the election, with City officials participating in the negotiations. A month later, in June, a contract was signed, recognizing the union as the bargaining agent for the company's employees, and granting a modest wage increase.

In summary, we have a rather traditional industrial labor dispute in which a strong and determined management in a historically non-union industry, squares off with an aggressive force of employees demanding union recognition, backed by a strong city wide union movement. The city officials natives of the Ozarks, reflecting to some degree the less than hearty support for corporate industry that was evident in many parts of rural Missouri and the Ozarks, declined to provide the company with the solid commitment of its police authority, thus permitting a climate to prevail in which the union could continue its activities throughout the long 252-day strike and to eventually win. Thus was established Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 696, an important union still active on the Springfield labor scene.

The precise effect of this strike on the rest of the labor movement in Missouri is not established. It is known, however, that two months after the contract was signed in Springfield, the Kansas City traction workers started their organizing campaign. The St. Louis street car workers organized their union the following year.