One hundred twenty-nine years ago on this day, in the city of New Orleans, Black and White union workers staged a general strike, which concluded four days later. The Big Easy was a tumult of labor organizations for a variety of trades, counting more than 30,000 members. New Orleans at the time was a vibrant economic center of trade and industrial exchange. Led by unions in the railroad sector, the strike seriously threatened the commercial artery. Represented by the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council, the workers gained a 10-hour workday and overtime pay.
The organized business leaders and employers developed racial strategies to attack the unity of the unions, utilizing local newspapers to support unfounded reports of African-American workers seeking to take over the city. This line of attack sought to draw upon the fears of rebellion by formerly enslaved persons to the detriment and subjugation of the plantation class.
The collaboration of workers of color in common purpose remains significant.
Historians have differing opinions on the merits of the strike. It failed to gain “union shop” status, a goal that later became a priority for business owners to defeat in right-to-work legislation. At minimum, however, the collaboration of workers of color in common purpose remains significant.
Although over time, labor opponents have been more successful in diminishing union power and demands, the COVID pandemic has altered the labor market. Recently, several strikes have gained national attention. The fear of the collective nature of labor organizations seems to be less intense and less prone to accusations of limiting job opportunities or threatening to the ideal of capitalism.
As the nation’s economy and workforce readjust and realign to a substantially altered environment of productivity, so too are older, unfriendly views of unions. It may be that the workers in the Big Easy were on the right track.