Clashes between workers and their bosses have been present in America since the founding of the republic.
Presidential involvement in labor disputes unfolded as America’s growing industrial base met a burgeoning unionized workforce.
“The first recorded strike was in 1768 when journeyman tailors in New York City protested a reduction in wages. The formation of the Federal Society of Journeyman Cordwainers in Philadelphia in 1794 marks the beginning of sustained labor organization among American workers,” according to an article on history.com.
During the first decades of the 1800s, unions increasingly sought a better working environment and more money for the base. When their efforts failed, strikes took place.
Andrew Jackson was the first president strikebreaker.
American historian Richard Morris writes that Old Hickory “has been called a friend of labor”; this position did not prevent him from sending troops to Maryland to hold back disgruntled Irish laborers in 1834. They rioted in response to poor working conditions and low wages during the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
It was the first time federal forces were used to quell labor unrest that set a precedent for future presidential intercessions in disputes between labor and capital.
As the United States emerged as a major manufacturing power after the Civil War, enmity between workers and business owners escalated. Many violent confrontations marked the era – two decisive outbreaks prompted the White House to act.
The July 1877 railroad strike was the first nationwide work stoppage in the United States. Clifton Rossiter writes in the “Journal of Politics”. “the unexpected violence of this strike, or rather of a series of strikes, spread over fourteen states; governors appealed for federal assistance.
The showdown began in West Virginia, where Baltimore & Ohio Railroad employees resigned because the company cut their wages twice in a year. The boycotters refused to run the trains. Striking B&O workers were soon joined by workers from other railroads in a show of sympathy that led to anarchy in many cities.
After local and state authorities were unable to deal with the uprisings, President Rutherford B. Hayes dispatched 45,000 guards to quell the unrest. Order was restored, workers’ wages were restored, and trains began again.
The Oval Office’s next foray into a labor altercation took place in 1894.
Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago boycotted the company after management slashed their already low wages by twenty-five percent. When a delegation of workers tried to present their grievances to the president of the company, he refused to see them and dismissed all the protesters.
The American Railways Union under Eugene Debs called on thousands of workers across the country to strike in unison with their Pullman brothers. When the nationwide riots, derailments, and mail delivery were disrupted, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago and won an injunction against the union; the work stoppage has ended. In the aftermath, to appease working-class voters, Cleveland officially sanctioned Labor Day as a national holiday.
The actions of Hayes and Cleveland favored the employers, not the picketers, at these two labour-management protests.
This lopsided presidential position changed with the 1902 anthracite coal strike in Pennsylvania. The confrontation was settled peacefully when Teddy Roosevelt threatened to take over the mines with the militia; this forced operators to negotiate in good faith.
TR acknowledged that “champions of labor and leadership were more likely to heed the public interest if the battleground moved from a hotel suite to the White House,” writes author Rossiter.
In times of war, a more structured approach was needed.
Woodrow Wilson during World War I formed the National War Labor Board; the agency had the power to settle clashes between business and labor in industries vital to the military. Wilson’s tactics provided the model used by FDR in World War II and Harry Truman in the Korean War.
Although the system worked well in almost all situations, direct presidential engagement was sometimes necessary.
When Connecticut machinists ignored a Labor Board decision to call off a strike in 1918, Wilson threatened to have them drafted into military service—they immediately returned to work. A generation later, Give ‘Em Hell Harry settled a steel dispute by taking over the country’s steel mills to keep them in business during the Korean conflict. The Supreme Court later ruled the takeover unconstitutional.
In the latter half of the 20th century, a shrinking labor movement reduced major walkouts; the great national strikes have become an anachronism.
While employer-employee squabbles persisted, many were resolved by presidential engagement.
- Lyndon Johnson used his personal persuasion to end a railroad strike, a protest by plumbers in New York, and a strike by garbage collectors in Memphis.
- In 1971, Richard Nixon applied the “back to work” provision of the Taft Hartley Act to end a dockside strike that halted cargo on both coasts.
- Jimmy Carter used emergency powers under the National Railroad Labor Act to order striking Rock Island railroad workers back to work.
- In August 1981, Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers after they refused his order to return to work.
- While Bill Clinton stepped in to stop a strike against American Airlines by flight attendants, he failed to end the 1995 Major League Baseball strike on his own.
The commanders-in-chief of the new millennium also settled labor disputes. George W. Bush ended a strike by airline mechanics and Barack Obama intervened in a West Coast port dispute. Donald Trump intervened in a General Motors strike, and last July Joe Biden temporarily stalled a 60-day freight railroad strike by appointing arbitrators.
While modern presidents have more sophisticated powers to settle labor disputes than their earliest predecessors, balancing what’s best for the country, business needs and workers’ rights can be difficult.
Stolz at a resident of James City County.