This week, Thomas Lowry, an early Minneapolis business leader, is being remembered for his many civic accomplishments. A program at the Hennepin County Central Library marked the 100th anniversary of the statue honoring Lowry that now stands on small plot of land at 23rd and Hennepin.
“One of the foremost movers and shakers in Minneapolis history,” according to the Star Tribune’s Steve Brandt, Lowry founded the concern that later became the Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT).
At the outset of World War I, Lowry’s son, Horace, was running the business that his father had organized 20 years earlier. In 1917, the younger Lowry became embroiled in a bitter strike that convulsed the Twin Cities for months on end, just as the U.S. was rushing its troops to the European battlefields.
After taking control of the company in 1915, Lowry had to contend with irate employees who were increasingly dissatisfied as rising prices continued to eat away at what they saw as their already meager wages. When the TCRT head denied their request for a 3-cent-an-hour raise, they decided to form a union.
To help them organize, Lowry’s workers approached a national labor organization, the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees. The national organization responded by sending its organizers to the Twin Cities. Soon the labor group began making headway by signing up members for two new union locals, one in Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul. Lowry responded by promptly firing the union’s leaders. At the same time, he maneuvered to buy off the remaining TCRT employees by offering them a 10 percent pay increase. Flexing their muscles, the two new Amalgamated locals rebuffed Lowry and called on his workers to strike the transit company.
Violence in St. Paul
The strike began at 1 a.m. on Oct. 6, 1917. In Minneapolis, the strike was relatively peaceful with only a few episodes of violence reported, but the situation was quite different in St. Paul. There, thousands of strikers took control of the streets and shut down virtually all streetcar service. The next day, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, aghast at the events unfolding around it, reported that “wild rioting in which the police were unable to control mobs numbering in the thousands marked the end of the first day of the strike.”
With the labor action spinning out of control, Minnesota Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist called on U.S. Army officials at Fort Snelling to send in federal troops to quell the disturbance. Soon, 500 infantrymen were patrolling the streets of St. Paul, armed with bayonets and rifles. This show of force caused the strikers to back off, permitting TCRT to resume normal streetcar service in both cities. Army patrols may have quelled the labor riot in St. Paul, but the bitter dispute, which provoked the street violence, remained unresolved.
New commission intervenes
At this point, a newly created state agency, the Commission on Public Safety, intervened in the labor dispute. The commission had been given wide-ranging powers to suppress what it viewed as civil unrest during wartime.
The agency ordered an immediate end to the strike. Then, in an effort to appear evenhanded, it also called for review of management’s discharge of the union leaders.
TCRT employees did receive a pay raise, and most of the men fired by Lowry at the onset of the strike were reinstated. But, as the weeks wore on, union supporters found that their initial gains were beginning to erode.
On the defensive, Lowry set out to create his own company union, known as the Trainmen’s Co-operative and Protective Association. TCRT’s owner appointed himself head of the new organization, with the ultimate authority to resolve any dispute submitted by its membership.
‘War of the buttons’
As a sign of their support, Protective Association members were issued blue buttons to wear on their caps. Almost immediately, the Amalgamated locals responded by issuing yellow buttons for their supporters. Now, the “war of the buttons” had begun. Lowry’s blue buttons proved to be a tactical blunder. Pro- and anti-union trainmen were clearly identified by the buttons on their caps. Some passengers who were union sympathizers began spitting on their nickel fares or throwing their nickel on the floor when they encountered a blue-buttoned conductor as they boarded their streetcar.
Once again, the Public Safety Commission intervened, this time issuing an order on Nov. 20 banning the display of buttons or other insignia by the streetcar motormen. The commission’s order, as it applied to union organizing, was somewhat ambiguous. It merely declared that “this is not a convenient time for agitation about abstract principles like Unionism or non-Unionism.” Immediately, Lowry moved to implement the commission ruling by directing all his employees to remove their buttons.
Events moved quickly as union officials began preparing for a mass meeting of their membership to determine their next steps in face of the commission ruling. On Nov. 26, Lowry further inflamed union passions by issuing a provocative order declaring that any employee displaying a button on company property would be immediately fired.
Mass event at Rice Park
A week later, on Sunday, Dec. 2, angry workers withstood plunging temperatures at an outdoor meeting in St. Paul’s Rice Park. Some speakers at the mass event called for restraint as the labor controversy neared another crisis point, but the rank and file were in no mood to heed that advice. Once again, as they had done in October, union members went on a rampage as the meeting was breaking up, attacking nearby company supporters and halting streetcar service.
At least 2,500 people quickly gathered at 7th and Wabasha, most of the crowd coming from the union meeting at Rice Park, the Pioneer Press reported. “Cries of scab were heard as the street cars with difficulty made their way through the packed streets. Then someone threw a brick through the window of a car on Wabasha Street and the pent up energy of the rioters broke loose.”
This time, Gov. Burnquist responded to the violence by mobilizing the Minnesota Home Guard. Within a few days, calm returned to the streets as the state troops marched up and down Wabasha, St. Peter and the city’s other major downtown thoroughfares. The St. Paul streets may have been calm, but the dispute between the streetcar workers and the TCRT management continued to simmer. By now, the Public Safety Commission was signaling its support for Lowry and his effort to beat back union organizing efforts among his workers.
Federal mediators try, but Lowry ignores them
As the dispute dragged on into the early months of 1918, federal mediators, operating as agents of the Wilson administration, attempted to negotiate an end to dispute, but Lowry, backed by state officials, merely ignored their orders.
In the end, Lowry won the battle but lost the war, according to transit historian John Diers.
“Employees were left demoralized and the community came to see TCRT as just another greedy corporate trust,” Diers noted. He explained that the 1917 strike set the stage for other labor disputes, which finally led to unionization of the company’s work force in 1934. That labor struggle was won by the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, which was known as the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees when it battled Horace Lowry during World War I.
Lowry’s 1917 strike represents a painful episode in Minnesota labor history, but its legacy extends into the modern era. In the 21st century, the Transit Worker Union continues to represents the men and women who operate the Twin Cities transit system, now publicly owned under the auspices of the Metropolitan Council.
Iric Nathanson is writing a book about World War I and its impact on Minnesota, to be published in 2016.