Blockade of engines at Martinsburg, West Virginia, 16 July, 1877. Photo: Everett Collection /

The Railroad Strike of 1877 and the birth of modern policing

  • September 9, 2020

Work & Workers

To abolish the police we need to understand their modern formation and long history of being used for class repression.

This article is based on the third chapter of Ovetz’ book When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921 (Haymarket 2019).

The months-long uprising that has followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police on May 25 has once again brought the function of the police as an institution of control and domination into focus. From a historical perspective, this violence is not surprising.

The earliest police forces in the United States have their origins in militias that were used as a weapon to enforce racialized capitalism by suppressing rebellious slaves and native peoples. These early iterations of the police were often informal, privately funded and sporadically trained. The police as we understand them today — a state-sanctioned and publicly funded instrument of racial and class subjugation — however, can be traced very precisely to the nationwide railroad strike of 1877.

The history of how the police were reorganized, managed and equipped with newly designed technology in response to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is critical to today’s struggle to defund — and eventually abolish — the police. Any efforts to pursue these ends without taking into account policing’s historical role in suppressing class struggle is likely to leave this role firmly in place.

An investigation of the historic railroad strike reveals a simple truth: a struggle against the police must be a struggle against capitalism.

The 1877 Railroad Strike and the Modern Police

The nearly two-week-long strike in the summer of 1877 brought much of the country to a standstill. Triggered by wage and staffing cuts, self-organized workers without a formal union to represent them spread their struggle to many railroad companies across the entire country. In response to brutal attacks by local police and elite-run militias, the workers launched an armed struggle, evoking comparisons to the 1871 Paris Commune and expectations of revolution.

For a time, the workers seemed to be winning and even controlled the cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis. Ultimately, however, their inability to expand and sustain the strike, take over and run the railroads themselves and adequately defend themselves against state repression resulted in their defeat. Even so, the railroads backed off on pay cuts and planned changes to working conditions that would have endangered the workers.

The initial successes of the strike threatened to inspire widespread worker rebellions and shook US capital to the core, prompting a complete overhaul of local police and the transformation of militias into the state-run and -funded National Guard we have today. Howls from the newspapers and elites about the “mob,” “communism,” and the armed “rabble” provoked the reorganization of the police, transformation of both volunteer and state militias into the National Guard, the reorganization of railroad work and the consolidation of the railroads into integrated industrial corporations to be better prepared for the next general strike.

What is most relevant for us today is how police work was Taylorized by establishing a clear chain of command, assigning patrolmen to rationalized beats and police wagons to be used as weapons used to break up crowds and carry off arrestees. According to Sidney Harring’s classic book Policing a Class Society, “Police professionalization is properly understood as simply one small part of the total process of rationalization under advanced capitalism.”

To Protect and Serve

Class and racial tensions had been growing in the decades prior to the 1877 railroad strike. Throughout the 1840s and 50s, there was a wave of ethnic and racial riots precipitated by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigration and xenophobic Know Nothing movement’s control over local cities and police departments, which they used to stoke ethnic and racial hatred and terrorize immigrant communities.

Between 1830–65, close to a 100 riots took place across major US cities. Although the riots stoked a wave of fear among the ruling class that the current police systems were unprepared to control or repress a growing working class, there was no firm consensus on the need to support and fund the police. One exception was Boston, where police were organized into a full-time office of professionals in 1837 after three earlier riots and criticism from the city’s elites. According to Bruce Johnson, it was not until they were placed under state control in 1885 that the police were forced to protect property during strikes.

As a result, cuts to the Chicago and Pittsburgh police departments, for example, during the depressions of 1870s and 1890s left them incapable of defending property and elite neighborhoods during the strikes. The 1877 railroad strike resulted in a new emphasis on legitimizing and expanding the police. Changes to policing coincided with the reorganization of the militia into the National Guard. In St. Louis, the police force was enlarged, a National Guard armory was built and the Lucas Market, where strikers had assembled, was demolished as part of the process of reorganizing public space to facilitate the deployment of police and military force.

There was a substantial growth in the size of forces, as much as seven-fold in some cities across the Great Lakes region. Harring observed that because “class struggle is at the core of the police function,” the growth and reorganization of police forces was intended to meet the need for changing tactics and strategy of class conflict. He concurs with Marx’s observation in Capital Volume I that the state “employed the police to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labor.”

The industrialization of policing corresponded to the prerogatives of industrial capital to control workers by preventing disruption and restoring control. Harring reminds us that “As capitalism developed, individual capitalists’ adaptations to the class struggle needed to be rationally organized and disciplined, a function beyond any individual capitalist but appropriate for the capitalist state.” The police did not exist to police the elite.

The takeover of policing by local city and state governments socialized policing as a public function of government paid for by public expense rather than by elites alone. In effect, the wage and property taxes levied on workers paid for their own domination by the police. The industrialization and transformation of policing into a governmental function in which officers and constables were hired or appointed made it more efficient and legitimate.

Between the 1880s and 90s police departments were restructured with a new division of labor that mimicked the military. They followed a centralized bureaucratic structure, standardized recruitment, training, professionalism, discipline and specialized units. In the 1890s police were trained as public employees and their 12-hour workdays and seven-day workweeks, during which they slept at the station, were shortened and they received days off, pensions and benefits.

The 1877 and 1886–7 eight-hour day and railroad strikes reinforced the emphasis on local police over militias. In Pittsburgh, the defeat of the Philadelphia militia during the 1877 strike prompted elites to focus on improving the local police force. There were several advantages to using police rather than militia for local crowd control. They were more flexible and mobile because they did not move in military formation, had experience with crowd control, operated under local political control, were locals familiar with the local terrain, worked full-time and belonged to an institution that emphasized obedience and loyalty to capital despite their recruitment from the working class.

Technology of Control

Several critical new technologies made the police a more effective force for social control in the rapidly growing cities. New city police departments were established, expanded rapidly and transformed themselves from working for bribes and tips to professionally trained public workers. To ensure accountability, police were organized according to innovative management techniques that allowed them to be monitored with the newly invented telegraph and telephone in 1880 as well as new hiring and training procedures. City-wide coordination ensured the police could be mobilized rapidly and in large numbers.

The police call box was invented in 1880 in Chicago, modeled after the fire alarm telegraph installed in the homes and businesses of the rich. It had three mechanisms to sign a simple short message — riot, robbery, send help — with the pull of a lever, an alarm bell that would ring each box to alert men on the beat to call in for a message, and a two-way conversation between the officer and switchboard.

Call boxes were installed by the rich for $25 in 1881, the equivalent of two weeks’ pay for a worker. As Harring observed, this “clearly shows the class basis of the innovation: the public police apparatus was merged with a private system of mobilizing officers” transforming every member of the elite thereby into a policeman. Police box systems were estimated to increase force productivity by the equivalent of 200 men at a reduced cost, a dramatic increase in the production of variable surplus value.

The combination of these new technologies and management strategies had a tremendous impact on the ability of the police to control mass action. The signal system and new horse-drawn patrol wagons now allowed a dozen or more officers to be put on the scene in a few minutes compared to one hour under the previous system which required running about town to round up a force before marching on the scene. The increase in the number of wagons from one to seven in Buffalo between 1887–96 resulted in an exponential growth in calls, responses and arrests. In Pittsburgh, police estimated that a wagon had the impact of a dozen policemen. The patrol wagon became a symbol of intimidation and power, making unruly crowds give way at their approach.

Much like gas and flash bang grenades today, the wagon allowed a small number of police to defeat immense crowds which had been previously impossible. Wagons were used as weapons, slamming them into crowds to break them up, make mass arrests and to take away large numbers of people. Such technologies made policing a productive industry in the service of the ruling class.

An effective and efficiently-managed police force provided a potent weapon for raising the costs of organizing and striking. Police not only protected property but also carried out the social control functions that intimidated and coerced burgeoning urban populations and dampened collective action. At times of class unrest, the police could be used to protect strikebreakers, break up meetings, marches and pickets, keep workplaces open, deploy special agents to supplement their forces and provided the bulk of the forces of repression.

As a branch of local government, the police legitimated and sanctioned the official use of violence to protect capital, in turn fueling the tactical escalation of strikes. This spiraled into armed conflict that redirected focus away from capital and onto the police. Sympathetic local officials might delay their use of police but they rarely kept them on the sidelines. Toledo Mayors Jones and Whitlock were unique in that they did not allow local police to protect scabs. As a result, the 1906 Pope-Toledo Motor Car Company strike led to an arbitrated settlement favorable to the workers. Otherwise, cases in which workers influenced, let alone controlled, police during strikes are rare. Police who appeared sympathetic were quickly reassigned or disciplined.

States also designed new types of police forces to protect specific industries. The Pennsylvania governor, who oversaw both the suppression of the Molly Maguire miners and the railroad strike, had just recently set up the Coal and Iron Police in the summer of 1877, amassing 100 men by June 1878. The Coal and Iron Police were used to replace local police in strikes where the latter might be too sympathetic to strikers. Portrayed in the 1970 film The Molly Maguires, the Coal and Iron Police were mercenaries on the state payroll whose only purpose was to protect mining companies and their capital from organized workers.

Nevertheless, the reorganization of the police alone failed to realize the necessary discipline and control that would prevent further insurgencies. Policing must be understood within a larger context of intra-class conflicts over tactics and strategy of class domination and control that was paired with the courts, military, welfarism, arbitration and the new division of labor. According to Harring, “Class violence was not as well controlled by the police as the bourgeoisie originally expected or hoped that it might be, and this failure can be seen as one reason for the turn toward ‘progressive’ or ‘reformist’ methods of controlling the class struggle, now identified with the welfare state.”

As a result, the size of local and state government grew dramatically while shifting the costs for education, training, public services and policing onto the working class. This necessitated new sources of tax revenue that corresponded with the permanent establishment of the federal income tax in the Sixteenth Amendment.

Reform or Abolition?

Calls to defund, abolish, or hold the police more accountable with civil penalties and criminal punishment for excessive use of force are not new. Racism of individual police officers or the institutional rules that govern them are not the only reasons why people of color are disproportionately more likely to be oppressed, injured or killed by the police. Racial supremacy plays a central role in policing the working class in order to impose, maintain and restore control when the racial hierarchy of class power is threatened.

We should be vigilant about the efforts of non-profit advocacy groups to co-opt and redirect the struggle against the police into reforming the police. Efforts to make the police less discriminatory in their application of their oppressive power will leave the institution as a tool of class domination firmly in place. These groups have failed to achieve even the most non-threatening changes to police policies and practices, such as banning choke and carotid holds or simply enforcing the laws against police violence that already exist.

Previous efforts to “diversify” the police and require that they wear cameras have clearly not blunted their power. And as the aftermath of the 1877 strike shows, reorganizing the police to make them more accountable will also likely result in making them a more effective force of repression.

To abolish the police we need to understand its role as a weapon in the class struggle. Because the police are essential to control and suppress class struggle, efforts to abolish it are inseparable from the struggle to abolish capitalism. By refusing to drive anti-police violence protesters to jail, the Minneapolis and New York City bus drivers demonstrated how demands to defund and abolish the police are integral to a larger class struggle. Without further similar efforts such demands will only succeed in putting a friendlier face on the end of the club wielded against the working class.

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