December 11 Transit Workers Railroaded
On this day in labor history, the year was 1918.
That was the day streetcar workers in Kansas City walked off the job.
It was the third strike since August 1917. Workers had previously struck for union recognition and joined the city general strike that Spring.
By summer, the city was so desperate for wartime labor, the transit company began hiring women. Though women faced initial opposition, by fall, the union demanded they receive equal pay for equal work.
The company had been paying them $15 dollars less a month than their male coworkers. The Amalgamated filed charges with the National War Labor Board, demanding a general wage increase and equal wages for women.
The Board quickly ruled in the union’s favor. But Kansas City Railway refused to abide by the decision. On this day, 2675 men and 127 women walked off the job, demanding the company honor the board’s ruling. Instead the company hired scabs.
In the rush to restore service, the company failed to properly train the scab drivers and a number of streetcar crashes reduced the transit company’s fleet by 300 cars. According to Maurine Weiner Greenwald, author of Women, War and Work, the company alleged in the press that the strike was an attack against the entire community.
On the Missouri side, state militia guarded the strikebreakers while U.S. Marshals guarded rail tracks on the Kansas side.
By April 1919, “a federal grand jury indicted union leaders for obstructing a vital industry during wartime,” even though the war had been over for six months!
By May, the strike was lost and the union busted. It would take another 20 years before Kansas City Transit would finally be organized.
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