The Salt Lake City Railroad Strike of 1890

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, January 1995

Organized labor suffered many setbacks in the late 19th century. Workers in the “unskilled” or “semiskilled” trades found it particularly difficult to gain workplace rights. In September 1890 the streetcar men of Salt Lake City learned a hard lesson in the realities of worker/management relations.

Streetcars were a new phenomenon in Salt Lake City; the first electric cars had appeared in 1889. The motormen and conductors of the Salt Lake City Railway Company formed themselves into a Street Car Men’s Union in July of 1890 and joined the Utah Federation of Trades and Labor Council.

The streetcar men objected to a company policy that required them to clean their cars at the end of their shifts. They argued that the company also required them to present a neat appearance, which necessitated the purchase of good suits of clothes at their own expense, and that cleaning up ruined those clothes. A union committee proposed that the company hire other workers to perform the cleaning, but the company rejected that idea and also refused to recognize the union. On September 17, 1890, about 130 men went on strike.

For their part, company officials said that the union had misrepresented itself; that the union was originally to be “only a benevolent affair”; that the men were paid more than streetcar workers in other cities; that the cleaning could easily be done in half an hour; and, most important, that the company would not allow its employees to dictate the terms of work. The company refused to negotiate and would not recognize the Utah Federation of Trades’ representatives.

The company immediately began hiring and training new men, some of whom were operating streetcars as early as the morning of September 18, the day after the strike began. The strikers made some attempts to block the cars at the corner of Main Street and First South, denouncing the new men as “scabs”; but the presence of policemen helped prevent any violence. The union had some support; the Federation of Trades sponsored a “grand labor demonstration” with parades, signs, and bands. Other unions drafted resolutions of support, boycotted the streetcars, and contributed money.

A. W. McCune, company president, moved quickly to solve his labor problems, and within five days a largely new crew had been hired and nearly all of the streetcars were running. McCune argued that the strikers “have the right to withdraw from our service. The company has an equal right to employ others to take their place . . . the real object was to compel from us a formal recognition of this labor order and its demands; and only the good God knows where it would stop if it was once begun.”

Despite a petition signed by many prominent citizens urging arbitration, the company stood firm. The union was broken within a week; some men renounced their demands and were rehired, while others had to find other work. R. G. Sleater, president of the Utah Federation of Trades and Labor Council, maintained that the lesson of this strike was not to allow unskilled laborers in the council. Although the streetcar men would be offered “moral support,” the council would limit its membership to skilled workers in the future.

Sources: Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake Herald, Deseret Evening News, and the Utah Labor Archives, Marriott Library