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From ‘St. Paul: An Urban Biography’: Labor strife — and accommodation

Labor disputes in St. Paul typically were small-scale and short-term, and organizers made liberal use of ostensible St. Paul communitarian values to coerce city employers to display social responsibility.

Striking streetcar workers assembled in Rice Park in 1917.
Striking streetcar workers assembled in Rice Park in 1917.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The following is an excerpt from the new book, “St. Paul: An Urban Biography,” by Bill Lindeke. It is reproduced with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. 

St. Paul’s tradition of accommodation likely began during the Great Northern strike of 1894, when James J. Hill, the city’s leading businessman, came face-to-face with Eugene Debs, the founder of the Socialist Party of America. After the Panic of 1893, one of the worst economic depressions in national history, economic stagnation had gripped the city and collapsed railroads, land schemes, and businesses all through the Midwest. Ever the survivor, Hill kept his operations afloat by cutting workers’ pay to forty dollars a month, hardly more than the cost of lodging. Eugene Debs, a tireless labor organizer from Indiana, was fresh off his work at the violent Pullman strike outside Chicago. He came to Minnesota trying to create a unified organization, an American Railway Union, that could transcend the fragmented worker classifications typical in the industry at the time. Instead of separate units for trackmen, engineers, mechanics, and the like, Debs wanted a single outfit to represent the thousands of Great Northern workers. When wage cuts arrived in 1894, the vast majority of the railroad’s workers walked off the job on April 14.

In the midst of the financial depression, the railroad strike proved to be quite popular across the Northwest and in St. Paul. Despite his best propaganda efforts, Hill was forced to negotiate with Debs in person. On April 25, within the thick stone walls of his Great Northern building, he and Debs both proved inflexible and stubborn. Hill would not agree to broad wage increases, and Debs would not allow a compromise on his proposed union. After a nearly two-week standoff that saw most railroad traffic grind to a halt, the conflict went to arbitration, where it was decided by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. Unbelievably to Hill, the arbitrators sided with the workers and imposed a compromise: Hill would raise wages and put the union men back on the job, but Debs was denied recognition for his new, larger union. The quick strike changed both men. Debs became more radicalized about American labor politics, later writing that “in all my life, I never felt so highly honored as I did when leaving St. Paul.” Hill vowed never to let a strike embarrass him again. He set a tone of accommodation with labor that pervaded the thinking of most businessmen throughout the city—and held off industrial unionism.

The rail yards near Union Depot, circa 1918.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The rail yards near Union Depot, circa 1918.
Hill’s moderate approach also sat well with St. Paul’s breweries, whose leaders were some of the city’s largest employers and pillars of society. At the time, the vast majority of nineteenth-century brewery workers were German-speaking immigrants, and many came to the country with liberal ideas about labor organizing. For example, the Brewer Workers Union was explicitly Marxist, and one of the few nationwide that organized across divisions in labor, so that all types of brewery workers could join. On top of that, since brewery workers came from the same communities as their customers, unions proved to be good business. The brewery owners, men like Alfred Bremer, Jacob Schmidt, and Theodore Hamm, took pains not to alienate their customer base. Keeping everyone paid well enough to buy your product was the key to success in the beer industry.

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Compared to St. Paul, Minneapolis was rabidly anti-labor. Its chamber of commerce boasted the city was the “open shop capital of America”— meaning that employees could not be required to join a union— and unions were routinely crushed by a business and political coalition. Nascent strikes were quelled by the Citizens Alliance, a business organization that coordinated blacklisting, funded businesses facing labor pressure, and kept a corrupt police force of “deputies” to fight worker militancy. St. Paul’s business landscape was neither wealthy enough nor coordinated enough to achieve any of these goals. As a result, labor disputes in St. Paul typically were small-scale and short-term, and organizers made liberal use of ostensible St. Paul communitarian values to coerce city employers to display social responsibility. On top of that, as the seat of government, St. Paul was the headquarters for the statewide labor movement, and a local newspaper, the St. Paul Union Advocate, took great pains to ensure that St. Paul employers worked with labor rather than against it. Of course, the vast majority of union workers at the time were white, and labor organizing across racial lines would not be common for many years to come.

Schmidt Brewery, circa 1905.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Schmidt Brewery, circa 1905.
The turn-of-the-century exception that proved the St. Paul rule occurred in 1903, when West Publishing and its president, Charles Ames, tried to form a St. Paul Citizens’ Association, a version of Minneapolis’s probusiness group. West executives, along with a cadre of other manufacturers and wholesalers, began lobbying for open shop rules to break labor control over the city’s industries. The effort was both brief and toothless, and union organizers managed to use their ties with breweries and other well-organized shops—crate makers, suppliers, building trades, and the like—to fight Ames’s group. The contest came to a head in a bombastic anti-labor speech given on November 19 by a probusiness radical named David Parry, head of the National Association of Manufacturers. It was printed the next day in the Advocate, and the backlash from city workers was enough to quell anti-union efforts in favor of what one historian termed “the interdependence of business and labor.”

In this way, St. Paul became the Minnesota poster child for conflict avoidance. Surface-level compromise on matters of business or religion adhered closely with its civic identity as the state’s second city, one that had to struggle for its share of growth and investment. To compete with neighboring Minneapolis, and its extreme levels of economic disparities and worker suppression, St. Paul tacked toward moderation. Helped by the Irish community and the Catholic Church, the city carved out a unique civic identity that managed to avoid the tumult of the early twentieth century, one that saw both strikes and industrial exploitation reach new, extreme proportions across the country.