November 8, 1918: Dissatisfied with their latest wage award, two hundred streetcar powerhouse workers find employment elsewhere.
On this day 100 years ago, the Times-Picayune announced another union labor strike with the headline, “Two Hundred Men Quit Car Barns.” The diminished role of labor unions today means that strikes and walk-outs are a less prominent feature of our life, but in 1918 New Orleans labor strikes were quite commonplace. In fact, strikes unfolded frequently around the country because of government controls established during World War I that placed significant pressure on industry. Labor supply was low due to the draft, but demand for labor was high. Production of war materials was causing frequent shortages and an ever present, increasing need for these products stressed the entire industrial sphere. War chaos, in combination with an increasing cost of living, created constant tension between laborers and company heads (Gregg 1919).
In New Orleans, this tension took shape in constant battles between the New Orleans Railway and Light Company and its workers’ unions. By 1918, the NOR&L had essentially monopolized the city’s streetcar business. Despite this monopolistic power, the company often encountered pushback from the labor unions. In 1902, sixteen years earlier, laborers went on a violent strike that stopped streetcar operations for fifteen days and completely reshaped the relationship between the public, city government and NOR&L. This strike by the Local 194 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America drew support from the national offices of the AASEREA, prompting sympathy strikes in cities as far away as Milwaukee and Detroit protesting against growing power of streetcar companies (Fairclough 1981).
The strike in 1902 had resulted in a contract which required everyone working for the NOR&L to be members of the AASEREA (Fairclough 1981). Strikes continued to be the method by which this union advocated for its needs and kept a check on the power of the railway company. In this particular instance in 1918, the union claimed to strike “on account of dissatisfaction with War Labor Boards wage award” (Times-Picayune 1918). The National War Labor Board had been established several months prior to this strike to help mediate between management and workers and reduce some of the chaos within the industry due to the war (Gregg 1919). The powerhouse men of the NOR&L had reached out to the National War Labor Board in late September, asking for increased wages and dues that they felt were deserved (Times-Picayune 1918). The last week of October 1918, nearly every day the Times-Picayune reported a brief update on the dialogue between the powerhouse men and the Labor Board. All week, the laborers threatened to quit if their demands were not met. Ultimately, by Wednesday of the following week, the men left the car barns, claiming to have jobs elsewhere (Times-Picayune 1918).
“Definite Answer to Powerhouse Employes Today.” Times-Picayune, October 24, 1918.
Fairclough, Adam. “The Public Utilities Industry in New Orleans: A Study in Capital, Labor and Government, 1894-1929.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 22, no. 1 (1981): 47–51.
Gregg, Richard B. “The National War Labor Board.” Harvard Law Review 33, no. 1 (1919): 39–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/1328084.
“Powerhouse Men Threaten to Quit, Paralyzing City.” Times-Picayune, October 21, 1918.
“Powerhouse Men to Await Text of Wage Ruling.” Times-Picayune, October 26, 1918.
“Streetcar Heads Say Labor Board Wage Is Unfair.” Times-Picayune, September 25, 1918.
“Two Hundred Men Quit Car Barns Within Two Days Pitmen, Their Helpers and Oilers Leave.” Times-Picayune, November 8, 1918.
“War Labor Board Leaves Railways Case Up in Air.” Times-Picayune, October 23, 1918.