Know Your Labor Leaders: Martin Irons

April 10, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Posted in Historical, Labor | Leave a comment
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Martin Irons, of St. Louis, Chairman Executive Committee of the Knights of Labor, District No. 101 / photographed by R.G. Gardner, Kansas City, Missouri.  Illus. in: Harpers weekly, v. 30, no. 1529 (1886 April 10)

Martin Irons, of St. Louis, Chairman Executive Committee of the Knights of Labor, District No. 101 / photographed by R.G. Gardner, Kansas City, Missouri. Illus. in: Harper's weekly, v. 30, no. 1529 (1886 April 10)

It was in 1886 that Martin Irons, as chairman of the executive board of the Knights of Labor of the Gould southwest railway system, defied capitalist tyranny, and from that hour he was doomed. All the powers of capitalism combined to crush him, and when at last he succumbed to overwhelming odds, he was hounded from place to place until he was ragged and foot-sore and the pangs of hunger gnawed at his vitals.

Eugene V. Debs, December 9, 1900

Train magnate Jay Gould made himself famous for all American labor historians by saying, “I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.”

He proved his malicious intent by hiring gunmen to murder railroad workers during the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886. The original call for the strike occurred in Sherman, Texas at a Knights of Labor meeting. Gould had been defeated by the union in 1885, but he triumphed in 1886.

Jay Gould (between 1865 and 1892)

Jay Gould (between 1865 and 1892)

Both strikes were led by Texas labor hero Martin Irons. After the big defeat, Irons was blacklisted from his trade as a railroad machinist.

The differences that have arisen between Jay Gould and the men who control the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad system have given rice [sic] to negotiations which, it is thought, will soon put Mr. Gould in control of the Louisville and Nashville Road and the Central Railroad of Georgia.

NY Times, September 13, 1883

The great railway strike--attempt to start a freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, at East St. Louis, Illinois / from a sketch by G. J. Nebinger.  1886

The great railway strike--attempt to start a freight train, under a guard of United States marshals, at East St. Louis, Illinois / from a sketch by G. J. Nebinger. 1886

The central figure in the great railroad strike on the Gould Southwestern system was Martin Irons. To those who know anything of the man this circumstance proves conclusively that the strike was not inaugurated at the request of the best element in the Knights of Labor of the Southwest, but at the demand of the worst characters in the order.

NY Times, May 10, 1886

Martin Irons, the leader of the Knights of Labor strike on the Missouri Pacific Railroad last Spring, was arrested in Kansas City last night, and will be brought to this city [St. Louis, MO] to answer to the charge found against him in the indictment for complicity in tapping the private telegraph wires running into Vice-President Hozie’s residence.

NY Times, September 21, 1886

Terrence Vincent Powderly (wood engraving, 1886)

Terrence Vincent Powderly (wood engraving, 1886)

The story of the Great Southwest strike, a textbook example of the upheavals of 1886, has long been told as an epic battle between railway millionaire Jay Gould, national Knights of Labor head Terence Powderly, and Martin Irons, with many historians and contemporaries casting strike leader Irons as the epitome of impatient, romantic, and even deluded labor activism. District Assembly 101’s call to walk out on Gould’s southwestern system of roads was, arguably, strategically ill-advised. It vastly overestimated the Knights’ power in the wake of two victories against Gould in 1885 and certainly ignored the district’s lack of funds, lax support among skilled trainmen, and the terms of an historic agreement between the national Knights and Gould. A closer look at Irons’s life and leadership, however, reveals a more complicated explanation of the strike and takes into fuller account the experiences and perceptions of striking railroaders. This essay holds that events on the ground, combined with the heady context of the Great Upheaval, influenced Irons and his supporters’ decisions to strike, to expand the effort, and to defend it with violence. The ensuing attacks on Irons stemmed partly from his unstable personal history but largely from the broader social anxieties that the conflict had exposed.

— “Blaming Martin Irons: Leadership and Popular Protest in the 1886 Southwest Strike,” an essay by Theresa A. Case, Journal Of The Gilded Age And Progressive Era, Volume 8, Number 1, January 2009

The first dynamite bomb thrown in America May 4th, 1886. The personnel of the great anarchist trial at Chicago. Begun Monday June 21st 1886. Ended Friday, August 20th 1886.  Copyrighted by M. Umbdenstock & Co., Chicago, 1886.  I have examined all the pictures on this sheet and hereby certify that they are all correct copies of photographs of the persons named. Police Captain. Michael J. Schaack-- lower left.

"The first dynamite bomb thrown in America" May 4th, 1886. The personnel of the great anarchist trial at Chicago. Begun Monday June 21st 1886. Ended Friday, August 20th 1886. Copyrighted by M. Umbdenstock & Co., Chicago, 1886. "I have examined all the pictures on this sheet and hereby certify that they are all correct copies of photographs of the persons named. Police Captain. Michael J. Schaack"-- lower left.

“Failure of the Great Southwest Strike represented the first major defeat sustained by the Knights of Labor and proved to be a fatal blow to their vision of an industrial union that would unite all railroad workers in the Southwest into ‘one big union.’ Once again, an emerging labor organization was crushed when competing with powerful, determined and well-organized industrialists in command of nationally based corporations,” Allen concludes.

Martin Irons was blacklisted and could not hold a regular job. He moved to St. Louis, Little Rock, Ark., and Fort Worth for brief periods, sometimes using an assumed name.
In 1894, his health was failing; G.B. Harris of Bruceville, a democratic socialist, offered him a home. Allen reports that he continued to work for social reform until his death in 1900.

Molly Ivins, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2000

The Missouri State Federation of Labor gathered funds for a monument to mark the grave. In 1911, with the Texas State Federation of Labor officially in attendance, the monument was unveiled.

Dependent Parents, R.L. Witt. He is apparently working on the railroad, but his three oldest children, here work in the Roanoke (Va.) Cotton Mills. Mamie is only 12 years old and earns very little. Home is very poorly kept. Mother would not be in the photo. Location: Roanoke, Virginia.  1911 May.  (Photo: Lewis Wickes Hine)

Dependent Parents, R.L. Witt. He is apparently working on the railroad, but his three oldest children, here work in the Roanoke (Va.) Cotton Mills. Mamie is only 12 years old and earns very little. Home is very poorly kept. Mother would not be in the photo. Location: Roanoke, Virginia. 1911 May. (Photo: Lewis Wickes Hine)

The Texas State Historical Association has much interesting information about the Texas State Federation of Labor.

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