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A pay cut prompted the 1889 Twin Cities streetcar strike

On April 11, 1889, six hundred Minneapolis streetcar drivers walked off the job. Three hundred St. Paul drivers and other workers struck the following morning.

historical photo of horse drawn street car
Horse-drawn streetcar in Minneapolis; sign reads Sixth Street, Monroe Street and Eighth Avenue, c.1885. This photograph shows a second team of horses ready to relieve the team on the horsecar.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Wage cuts to employees of the Minneapolis and St. Paul streetcar companies in 1889 prompted a fifteen-day strike that disrupted business and escalated into violence before its resolution. In spite of public support for the strikers, the streetcar companies succeeded in breaking the strike with few concessions.

In early April 1889, streetcar magnate Thomas Lowry announced a 15 percent pay cut for all company employees to help cover the cost of new cable car lines. Reductions ranged from one to four cents per hour, depending upon the position. Workers saw the cuts as a contract violation and a clear indication of Lowry’s anti-union stance.

Local newspapers speculated that the streetcar drivers would strike during the busy summer season. It is possible that Lowry precipitated the strike by implementing the wage cuts in the spring to minimize revenue loss.

On April 11, 1889, six hundred Minneapolis streetcar drivers walked off the job. Three hundred St. Paul drivers and other workers struck the following morning. Most of the strikers were members of the Street Railways Employees’ Protective Association.

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Lowry indicated that the strikers could come back to work at the reduced wage if they agreed not to participate in union activity within the company. This stipulation made the strikers more determined. They hoped that public pressure would force Lowry to restore their lost wages.

Labor leaders advised against violence, but the few streetcars that ventured out the next morning came under attack. An estimated ten thousand people gathered along the Washington Avenue line. They placed obstructions on the tracks and threw stones at the drivers. Police arrested five men, including two strikers.

The violence prompted Minneapolis Mayor Edward C. Babb to place fifty special police on cars and at the storage barns to keep the peace.

The following evening, a crowd of ten thousand gathered in Bridge Square in Minneapolis to hear labor leaders J. P. McGaughey, Tom H. Lucas, and labor journalist Eva McDonald. They favored arbitration, but because Lowry refused to cooperate, they chose a course of action calculated to end the strike quickly and favorably.

Lowry’s franchise in each city depended upon all his streetcars operating on a regular schedule. The strikers reasoned that without drivers the cars couldn’t operate, which would force a forfeit of each franchise. They presented a petition with twenty thousand signatures to the Minneapolis City Council citing this operation requirement. Reluctant to act, the council submitted the strikers’ petition to Governor Merriam, who viewed the strike as a local government matter and declined involvement.

Another violent protest on April 17 prompted the council to mandate that all streetcar lines must be up and running by noon on April 22 or Lowry would lose his franchise. The strikers felt assured of victory.

The union’s cause suffered a blow on April 20 when thirty-eight armed “cowboys” arrived from Kansas as replacement drivers. The company offered the intimidating new drivers two dollars per week and protection. Public response was one of indignation and apprehension, which led to increased support for the strikers—and increased violence.

As many as ten thousand people gathered by the tracks the next morning to greet the streetcars with a show of rocks, bricks, and bottles of acid. The mob tore up tracks and piled debris upon others. They overturned two cars, and destroyed the Riverside turntable. The protesters pulled one driver from his car and beat him. Police reinforcements arrived and made thirty-three arrests. Later that evening, union sympathizers tore up a section of the Riverside tracks and police took two more men into custody. The company ordered all cars back to the barns until morning.

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The strikers recognized that the violence harmed their cause and passed a resolution condemning it. They blamed the rioting on the presence of the “cowboys” and on the actions of angry citizens.

By April 23, the strike had taken its toll on both cities and streetcar workers. Judge Isaac Atwater estimated the cost to the city of Minneapolis at five thousand dollars per day, plus losses to local businesses. The city also faced reparation costs of two thousand to three thousand due to Lowry for streetcar property damages.

Strikers in both cities were back at work by April 25, and most streetcar lines resumed operation by the end of the month.