I’d seen this beautiful photograph before, but hadn’t realized it existed in such high definition. I retouched it a little (the original is here, at the Library of Congress) and drew out some of the details:
The date for the photo is unknown but estimated as between 1915 and 1920. Credit is given to the Bain News Service, one of the earliest news picture agencies in the US, which had “a special emphasis on life in New York City” and the girl on the right is holding a flyer that says “[Don’t] Patronize Scab Cars”—so I looked for New York City transit strikes in the period.
The American Labor Year Book, 1917-18 details a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful strike by transit workers in 1916: it began in Yonkers and New Rochelle on July 22, when workers making 26 and 28 cents an hour ($5.83 and $6.29 in 2017 dollars) demanded an increase of 5 cents per hour ($1.12 in 2017) and the company responded with an offer of 1 and 2 cents an hour (22 and 45 cents in 2017). Strikes spread through the city, with 1,100 workers on the the Bronx Trolley lines demanding union recognition and the 5 cent an hour increase. “The conditions of virtual slavery under which the men worked made their lot all but unbearable,” reported the Year Book. “The community was shocked by the stories of inhuman treatment and of oppression that were made public during the strike. Public sympathy was very largely with the strikers, although many people failed to act upon their sympathies and patronized the cars run by strike-breakers.” Thousands of workers in Brooklyn and Manhattan joined the strike; management responded by importing scabs from other cities, providing “halting and ineffective” service.
Many months later, on April 9, management of the several companies now involved agreed to the following terms:
1. The right of the men to organize was admitted (although this did not mean the recognition of the Amalgamated).
2. The question of wages and working conditions was to be taken up not later than August 20 by a committee of the employees and the company.
3. If no agreement could be reached in this way the matter was to be submitted to a board of arbitration
With the strike over, many workers joined the union and striking workers were reinstated; the companies, however implemented the terms of the agreement in bad faith, creating company unions instead of recognizing legitimate ones. They also began to ask and intimidate workers to sign binding individual contracts—and thus a new strike was called in September on lines in Manhattan and the Bronx.
This time, newspapers joined management’s side, suggesting it was the workers who had violated the agreement, and claiming they had stoned cars and planted dynamite. Public sympathy turned against the union; more and more scabs were imported; and, worst of all, participation in the strike dropped (especially from the workers who had signed individual contracts). Violence erupted on occasion and many accidents occurred “due largely to inexpert handling of cars.”
By November, normal service had returned to the city. “Strike-breakers put on uniforms and were recognized as regular employees, the public became accustomed to riding in the cars, and forgot that a strike was on,” reports the Year Book. “The strike just fizzled out….The losses to both sides were tremendous. The companies lost heavily in fares and damages to property. The men lost wages amounting to huge sums.”
Management would beat back renewed efforts to organize in 1919 (another possible date for the photo) and 1926, but workers would ultimately win union recognition in the 1930’s as the Transit Workers Union (TWU)—which now represents more than 140,000 workers across the country.