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Denison Labor Strike of 1922... that couldn't be

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Tents in a park
Camp for National Guardsmen, called to Denison, Texas to quell potential violence during a railroad shopmen strike, at Forest Park near downtown Denison. This temporary camp, erected in 1922, even had a name: Camp Ellis.

Happy Labor Day Weekend! This weekend is brought to us by the blood, sweat, and tears of the working men and women of the U.S., specifically those who worked on the railroads. That's why this post involves a railroad strike centered in Denison, "the largest railroad division point in Texas" in 1922. Denison's main employer was the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway, which operated machine shops on the south side of downtown and the massive Ray Yard west of town.

On July 1, 1922, the national Union of Railroad Shopmen called for a massive, country-wide strike. Over 400,000 men across the country left work to demand the cessation of wage cuts and the employment of non-union contract workers, both of which had been approved by the Railroad Labor Board, a federal agency. To prevent a full-scale "sympathy" strike that would involve the other unions, and thus, the shut-down of rail traffic, Governor Neff of Texas declared martial law in Denison to prevent a labor strike on July 26, 1922. He ordered Texas Rangers to direct "military zones that take in two blocks of central business district and cuts through the residential district north and south of Denison." Neff also invoked "port law," which brought Texas Rangers to Red River Valley towns of Sherman, Childress and Quanah "to keep open the channels of traffic."

In Texas, railroad unions were composed of only white men, as they barred black men from joining on account of race. The Union of Railroad Shopmen was no exception, needlessly fueling racial tensions in the working classes. This discord worked in the corporation's favor. To undermine the union, the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway hired fifty "scabs" to replace the striking workers. These African American shopmen were ferried into the Ray Yards in Denison and lived inside the shop grounds, protected from the strikers by railroad police and the Texas Rangers.

While President Warren G. Harding attempted to negotiate a settlement between the railroad executives and the labor union, the talks stalled when executives continued to defy the workers' demands. By August, the strikers had become restless. While Denison did not report any serious labor-on-labor violence, in Greenville (Hunt County) someone shot into the bunks houses of non-union shopmen. However, the union had pledged a non-violent strike, and they mostly adhered to this.

Harding's attorney general, Harry Daugherty, accused the union of violence and sabotage. On Labor Day (!), Daugherty sought a restraining order against the strikers. A few days later, a sympathetic federal judge granted Daugherty's injunction, which made labor organizing (including holding meetings) illegal. One of the most notable causalities of the injunction was G. Sanders, an editor of The Memphis Press, who was arrested because his editorial criticized "scabs." Senator Robinson of Arkansas declared the Daugherty injunction "oppressive, unjust and unconstitutional." The injunction remained, though, and wages continued be cut, unions continued to be diminished, and the companies continued to reap the profits.

Win none, lose lots.

Headline in the Marshall Republican, July 26 1922
The railroad striker's list of demands in 1922 sounded incredibly reasonable. These points came from World War I, when railroad workers had been able to achieve many of these rights due to the nationalization of the railroads, which was done by the Wilson administration to prevent strikes from crippling war-time supply chains. The Republican-led government in the 1920s quickly dismissed these gains, and labor unions had to re-fight the same battles over and over again. The unions shot themselves in the foot, though, because their racism disallowed for black men to join. These black men, already underemployed, would become "scabs." Corporatists ultimately reaped the benefits from this arbitrary social stratification. If white workers and black workers fight each other, the capitalists can do what they want. (Shreveport Times, August 29, 1922)

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