In March 1886, railroad workers in the Southwest United States conducted an unsuccessful strike against railroads owned by Jay Gould, one of the more flamboyant of the 'robber baron' industrialists of the day.
Soon, more than 200,000 workers were on strike in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. Although the dismissal of the leadman in Texas had sparked the initial strike, wages, hours and unsafe working conditions motivated most of the strikers.
From the start there were problems. The Brotherhood of Engineers refused to honor the strike, and its members kept working.
Meanwhile, Gould immediately hired strikebreakers to work the railroad, allegedly declaring, 'I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.'
Pinkerton detectives were employed to break up union meetings, beat union leaders and sympathizers, and commit acts of violence that were to be blamed on the Knights.
On March 19, 1886, Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly of the Knights of Labor met in Kansas City, Missouri with other leaders of the Knights, the governors of Kansas and Missouri, and railroad officials to try to bring an end to the strike. The meeting continued for two days, but the parties were unable to reach an agreement.
After several incidents of 'union violence' occurred, Gould requested military assistance from the governors of the affected states. The governor of Missouri mobilized the state militia; the governor of Texas mobilized both the state militia and the Texas Rangers. The governor of Kansas refused after local officials reported no incidents of violence, despite claims by railway executives that mobs had seized control of trains and rail yards were burning.
The exercise of state police power on behalf of the railways led union members to retaliate. Switching houses were burned, mechanic shops wrecked and trains uncoupled. Shots were fired at a moving train in Missouri. A favorite tactic of the rail workers was to let steam locomotives go cold, forcing the railroad to spend up to six hours slowly reheating the engines for use.
As the violence spread, public opinion turned against the workers. The physical attacks by the Pinkerton agents scared thousands of workers into returning to work.
The strike petered out during the summer of 1886. By September, the strike was over.
The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and the Haymarket riot demoralized the Knights of Labor and energized management. By 1890, membership in the Knights of Labor had plummeted by 90 percent. Employers adopted a model for stamping out strikes that called for holding firm and calling for government troops.
While the collapse of the railroad strike set the American labor movement back, alleged organizational problems within the Knights of Labor also became apparent. This led Samuel Gompers of the cigar makers union, Peter J. McGuire of the carpenters union and others to organize what he considered a more effective labor organization. On December 8, 1886, they and a few other delegates met in Columbus, Ohio, to create the American Federation of Labor.