Letter from R. G. Ashley to Charles O. Kruger, March 22, 1910
As the year 1909 drew to a close, tensions were running high between Philadelphia's transit workers and their employer, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT). Streetcar drivers had organized a strike as the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees (Amalgamated) earlier that year. After weeks of striking, the PRT compromised and allowed for a slight pay increase and shorter working hours. Despite this victory, the president of the PRT, Charles Kruger, was secretly scheming to permanently dismantle the Amalgamated union of workers.
Kruger set his plan into motion by planting spies in his workforce to identify the leaders of the Amalgamated. He also supported the creation of a union whose members would be loyal to the PRT. Members of this union, the "Keystone Carmen," received benefits such as better rail routes and direct access to the management, but they were required to not to participate in strikes. Kruger deftly hid his involvement in these clandestine activities.
Once Kruger was confident that the PRT had weakened the Amalgamated, he fired 173 union workers in February 1910. The remaining Amalgamated members immediately went on strike to support the fired workers and demanded a host of new benefits such as better pensions and an insurance plan.
Undeterred, the PRT hired thousands of strike breakers to drive the streetcars. Irresponsible and poorly trained, these new drivers ran over pedestrians and fired guns into the crowds of people protesting in support of the union. This only served to further anger the citizens of Philadelphia and, a full-scale battle ensued between mobs of citizens and streetcar drivers. By the time the state police had arrested enough people to quell the fighting, 29 people had been killed and more than 1,000 streetcars had been destroyed.
Even amid the violence, Kruger still refused to give in to the demands of the strikers, claiming that he would not give up his liberties as a business owner. When it was clear that Kruger was unmovable, numerous other unions throughout Philadelphia went on strike in solidarity with the Amalgamated. Three weeks later, no progress had been made, and the supporting unions went back to work. Eventually, the PRT agreed to rehire the 173 fired workers and go into arbitration with them if the Amalgamated would end the strike. Disappointed, the transit workers conceded, and the bloody strikes of 1910 were over.
Throughout the strike, thousands of people, many of them businessmen, sent letters to the PRT expressing support for its position and encouraging Kruger to hold out against the strikers. One such letter is displayed here. It perfectly encapsulates the intense political conflict between laborers and capitalists during the Progressive Era. Kruger and R. G. Ashley were deeply convinced that giving power to employees would lead to socialism and limit the freedoms of business owners, while the strikers believed that companies did not deserve to exploit their workers for financial gain. Both sides were fighting for their own perspective of freedom.
While the strike ended up costing the PRT millions of dollars, the strikers were forced to accept terms that were beneficial to their employers. Suffice to say, the issue of labor rights was not definitively resolved in 1910, and the debate is still raging today in a slightly different context.
J. L. Kimball and Ken Fones-Wolf, "Mass Strikes, Corporate Strategies: The Baldwin Locomotive Works and the Philadelphia General Strike of 1910," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 110 (1986): 447-457.
The Motorman and Conductor, vols. 18-19 (Detroit: Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America, 1909-1910).
James Wolfinger, "'It was Nothing Short of War': Street Railways and the Spread of Class Conflict in Early Twentieth-Century Philadelphia," paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Historical Association, October 2010.