The Workingmen's PartyThere was a very active Workingman's Party with several thousand members. It had connections with the first international in Chicago. It was most active in St. Louis, the city of flour mills, foundries, breweries, and railroads. Here too, wage cuts on the railroad occurred, and there were perhaps a thousand members of the Workingmen's Party. Four sections of it, divided by nationality (French, German, English, and Bohemian) joined a mass meeting of railroad men in East St. Louis. One of their speakers told the crowd: "All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is to unite on one idea - that the workingmen shall rule the country. What man makes, belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country." Railroaders in East St. Louis declared themselves on strike. The mayor of East St. Louis, a European immigrant, had been an active revolutionist as a young man, and thus railroad men's votes dominated the city.
In St. Louis itself, the Workingmen's party organized an open-air mass meeting, which drew five thousand people. The party was clearly in the leadership of the strike. Speakers, excited by the crowd, became more militant: "… capital has changed liberty into serfdom, and we must fight or die." They called for nationalization of the railroads, mines, and all industry. At another huge meeting of the Workingmen's Party, a black man was the voice for those who worked on the steamboats and levees. He asked: "Will you stand to us, regardless of color?" The crowd shouted in response: "We will!" Soon an executive committee was organized, and it announced a general strike of all branches of industry in St. Louis.
David Burbank, in his book on the St. Louis events Reign of the Rabble, writes:
Only around St. Louis did the original strike on the railroads expand into such a systematically organized and complete shut-down of all industry that the term general strike is fully justified. And only there did the socialists assume undisputed leadership… no American city has come so close to being ruled by a workers' soviet, as we would now call it, as St. Louis, Missouri, in the year 1877.
The railroad strikes were making news in Europe. Marx wrote to Engels: "What do you think of the workers in the United States? This first explosion against the associated oligarchy of capital which has occurred since the Civil War will naturally again be suppressed, but can very well form the point of origin of an earnest workers' party… " A crowd of many thousands assembled at Tompkins Square. The atmosphere was quiet. There was talk of a political revolution through the ballot box. A speaker said " If you will unite, we may have here within five years a socialistic republic. . . Then will a lovely morning break over this darkened land." As the peaceful meeting came to an end, the last words heard were " Whatever we poor men may not have, we have free speech, and no one can take it from us." Nevertheless, the police thought it necessary to violently attack the crowd.
When the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, a hundred people were dead, a thousand people had gone to jail, 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and numerous unemployed in the cities had come into action. Over half the freight on the nation's 75,000 miles of track had stopped running during the peak of the strikes. The railroads made some concessions, rescinded some wage cuts, but also strengthened their "Coal and Iron Police". In several large cities, National Guard armories were constructed, with loopholes for guns. The 1877 strikes taught many people of the hardships of others and have led to congressional railroad regulation. They may have stimulated the business unionism of the American Federation of Labor as well as the national unity of labor proposed by the Knights of Labor, and the independent labor-farmer parties of the next two decades. In 1877, working people learned that they were not yet united nor powerful enough, to defeat the pact of private capital and government power.