Striking railroad workers struck out, others kept jobs
A nationwide railroad strike in 1922 eventually embroils Brainerd in the controversy over pay. Many of the 1,400 strikers were blackballed from Northern Pacific shops when the eight-month strike
BRAINERD — The railroad played a pivotal role in Brainerd’s creation, so it was no wonder perhaps that a nationwide railroad strike in 1922 was almost the city’s undoing.
The prolonged strike cost the city about $500,000, according to a Crow Wing County Historical Society account, and many of the 1,400 striking railroad workers were blackballed from Northern Pacific shops when the eight-month strike ended.
“During the ordeal, the real story of the strike, street fights, bloody brawls and bitter feelings between the strikers and the strike-breakers was held back in an attempt to ease the tense situation,” according to the "Centennial Edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch (1871-1971)."
Embittered over the cut in pay claimed necessary by railroad officials forced into a rate cut by the government, railroad unions waged one of the most bitter strike battles in history, according to the Dispatch account of the fight between labor and management.
The whole thing was over the proposed pay cut.
On Aug. 5, 1922, came word that eastern machinists were striking after months of negotiations failed to reach a compromise. Union workers throughout the country followed suit in sympathy but others did not, causing a rift that in some areas stopped the railroad industry in its tracks.
“Some believed the strike was imperative, others were content to work at reduced pay as there were no other jobs available and there were families to support,” according to the Dispatch centennial edition.
Fred Eckholm was president of the machinists' union in Brainerd's NP shops at the time of the strike. He said the railroad workers were making 72 cents an hour at the time of the strike. The railroad wanted to reduce salaries to 70 cents an hour.
"The whole thing was over the proposed pay cut,” Eckholm told the Brainerd Daily Dispatch at the time.
The strike lasted until the following spring and 1,400 men in Brainerd were affected. Those on strike included the blacksmiths, the boilermakers, the machinists, the sheet metal workers, pipefitters, carmen and all others in the shop trades, according to the publication.
"Some scabbed, but not very many from Brainerd," Eckholm stated of the strikebreakers who were shipped into Brainerd daily from points along the Northern Pacific lines to work in the Brainerd strikers’ stead.
Carloads of workers were dropped off at Brainerd and taken directly to work in the shops or escorted under a heavy railroad guard to fenced-in accommodations for sleeping and eating, and many stayed on after the strike, according to Brainerd Daily Dispatch accounts.
“Street fights broke out nightly in Brainerd between strikers and non-strikers. Gangs of strikers waited for scabs to leave their quarters and fights broke out. Most scabs stayed about a week at the most as confined quarters were too much, especially for younger men,” according to the paper.
J.P. Anderson, superintendent of the shops at the time, “not wanting to alarm the townspeople,” requested the Brainerd Daily Dispatch to minimize the strike and not to "play it like it is."
Eckholm said of the strike that was never settled, "The unions were too disorganized. We were just as militant then as unions are now, but we had no backing, and couldn't get anywhere.”
The Dispatch centennial edition reported, “Union men, for the most part, went back to work without a contract and most members were paying their dues undercover as the strike drew to a close.”
Following the strike, no national unions in the Brainerd shops existed because of the acrimonious rift between railway workers, but a company union was formed.
Eckholm said the more strident strikers were told by railway officials that they would never again be hired by a railroad in the country.