Clinton, Carl E. Person, and the 1911 Shopmen’s Strike, Part 1 of 3
Today’s history blog and the next 2 to follow explore the 1911 Shopmen’s strike, and the trials and tribulations of quite possibly the most-sued man in DeWitt County history: Carl E. Person.
“Ever since [the Illinois Central Railroad] was built, it has been known as having the most friendly relations with its employes[sic] of any corporation in existence.”
-The Facts About the Shopmen’s Strike, by W.L. Park, VP and general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad
"Whereas, on September 30, 1911 the union shop employes[sic] of the Illinois Central and Harriman Lines were compelled to choose between their jobs and their rights as freemen...[t]he men chose to give up their jobs rather than surrender the freeman's right to organize..."
-Circular letter issued by the Railroad Employees Department of the American
Federation of Labor, dated May 8, 1914.
When I set out to research the 1911 shopmen’s strike, which the city of Clinton (and one particular resident) played such a key role in, I figured I would easily be able to find an account of it written by a professional historian, and, if I found their argument for their account of the strike convincing, I could build off that with some local details, and have a blog out before I knew it. After all, a strike involving over 30,000 workers, two of the largest railroad systems in the US at the time, and lasting almost 4 full years must have had something written about it already, right?
Well, excepting a single master’s thesis written in the 1960’s (which I couldn’t get my hands on anyway), I turned up nothing. So these next 3 blogs are all original research, and you should keep in mind that while I’ve done my best to give an accurate account of the strike, I’m not a professional historian and American labor history is not something I’ve studied in any detail before this. Adding to this, the sources on the strike produced as it was happening or shortly after are confusing, contradictory, and often not that interested in reporting on-the-ground facts of the strike. Primarily I relied on Carl E. Person's "Strike Bulletin" newspaper alongside his book The Lizard's Trail and articles from Clinton newspapers from the time. Carl, as you will learn from reading following history blogs, was a very opinionated man and it shows in his writing, and the local papers were frequently alleged by the strikers to be taking payments from the Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) to report whatever the ICRR wanted. Even if those accusations were completely untrue, I found numerous cases where the local papers were obviously incorrect in their reporting or otherwise contradicted by sources sympathetic to the strikers. Generally, my account trusts the word of Carl Person and the strikers more than other sources. The simplest summary of why I trust his account is that more than once Carl was put in a position where he was obligated “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” and given his account was enough to convince a jury of his peers at the time, I’m willing to trust his telling of things- most of the time.
And one final clarification before beginning- in this blog I frequently reference the Illinois Central Federation and Harriman Lines Federation, as well as the international trade unions, both of which are types of unions. In short, the difference between the two is that “international” unions are organizations of workers in specific trades (machinist, blacksmith, carmen, etc.) across the entire US, while the Federations represented the combined interests of many or all unionized workers, regardless of their trade, but only those workers on the specific railroad system the federation was organized on.
With all of that out of the way, the one fact that is clear in the history of the 1911 strike is what caused it: the formation of “federations” by the union workers present on the Illinois Central and Harriman railroads (The “Harriman lines” were railroads controlled by E.H. Harriman before his death in 1909, which included the ICRR itself, as well as several of the largest roads west of the Mississippi river, such as the Union Pacific). The federation movement was a response by US labor to increasingly effective strike-breaking tactics employed by corporations around the turn of the 20th century, which were reducing the collective bargaining and strike powers of individual trade unions. The federations operated on essentially the same logic as trade unions did- just as many individual people could increase their leverage against owners by forming a trade union, several trade unions could increase their leverage by banding together into a federation and collaborating on contract negotiations and strikes.
By 1911, several federations had already formed on smaller railroads and been either freely recognized by management or successfully struck for recognition. Meanwhile on the Harriman lines, even requests for contract renegotiations by the International Association of Machinists, one of the larger unions present on those lines, were being rejected by the owners, prompting the formation of the Illinois Central Federation in May 1911, and the Harriman Lines Federation a month later. However, the owners of the railroads still refused to meet with union workers, rejecting both the Federations’ requests for conferences to renegotiate contracts.
Unfortunately, already the exact timeline of events becomes hard to set straight. It seems that, following the refusal of the railroads to meet with the Federations, the leadership of the Federations petitioned the presidents of the individual international trade unions present on the railroads to intervene and put further pressure on the railroads to meet with the Federations. Some number of meetings came of this, but I cannot say for certain when they started, nor prove what was discussed.
What is clear, however, is that the ICRR and Harriman lines were actively preparing for a strike over the summer of 1911, and it seems likely to me that the railroads were not negotiating in good faith during these summer meetings with the trade union officials. The August 25th, 1911 edition of The Clinton Register reported that the Harriman lines spent the summer firing thousands of union workers and The Lizard’s Trail claims the railroads fortified their maintenance shops with fencing to keep any future strikers away. In a pamphlet from the ICRR justifying its actions leading up to the strike, the ICRR made clear that it opposed the formation of a federation on principle - there was no possible settlement with the Illinois Central Federation that the ICRR would agree to, as any settlement which left the Federation intact would leave the workers in too strong a negotiating position for the owners to accept. This exact sentiment was repeated by ICRR officials to the US Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915. When the international union presidents finally secured an official meeting between themselves, the Federations’ officials, and the Harriman lines’ leadership, according to The Lizard’s Trail, the meeting was short. The Harriman representative told the gathered union officials the Harriman lines would not, under any circumstances, meet with the Federation to negotiate contracts, and that he was well aware of what the consequences would be. The railroads evidently felt secure in their preparations.
Meanwhile, the Federations made some preparations of their own by taking strike authorization votes- votes which, if successful, gave the leadership of the international trade unions making up the Federations authority to call a strike if negotiations failed. However, the unions were clearly already a step behind the railroads. In the same Register article that reported the Harriman lines had fired thousands of union workers, it was reported that the Illinois Central Federation had still only received 80% of the ballots from their strike authorization vote.
Adding to the Federations’ troubles, already they were having trouble coordinating with the leadership of the international trade unions. After the votes were counted and it was confirmed the workers on the ICRR and Harriman lines were willing to strike, the International Association of Machinists, whose locals on the ICRR and Harriman lines were part of the Federations, announced their leadership would not sanction a strike unless it was approved by the general membership during their convention the week of September 18th, 1911. This prompted the leadership of all the unions making up the Illinois Central and Harriman Federations to compel the Federations to take a second strike authorization vote, this one specifically noting that the Machinists, who made up a large portion of the Federations’ membership, may not strike alongside the other unions. According to The Lizard’s Trail, this vote enraged the Federations’ membership, who in many cases simply returned the ballots unopened and unmarked, or destroyed them.
The controversy surrounding the second vote was thankfully made mostly irrelevant by the fact that the Machinists’ convention did in fact vote to authorize a strike of the machinists belonging to the Illinois Central and Harriman Federations. Following this, it seems the leadership of the Federations and trade unions agreed to scrap the second vote and chose a date for the strike to begin if the railroads still had not backed down- September 30th, 1911. The railroads remained determined to force and break a strike, so on September 30th, over 30,000 maintenance workers of all stripes walked off the job at ICRR and Harriman shops, including somewhere between 200 and 400 from Clinton. The strike was on.
And that’s it for today’s blog. Don’t worry, you won’t have to wait long to hear about the strike itself- since research on this strike took so long, I didn’t get a blog out for November, and owe an extra one this month. So keep an eye out next week for my blog covering the first 2 years of the strike, and how a few workers from Clinton kept it alive.
Suggestions for Further Reading:
It Happened In Illinois, by Richard Moreno, briefly covers many other important and often-forgotten historical events which took place in Illinois. The book covers more famous incidents, such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, as well a less well-known events, like the 1832 Black Hawk War and the plot to ransom Lincoln’s body. Moreno highlights events from the arrival of European explorers in the area that became Illinois, right up to the present. The book can be found in the library’s nonfiction section under History->U.S./IL->General->MOR
Nothing Like It in the World, by Stephen Ambrose recounts the story of one of the most titanic engineering projects the US ever took on: the completion of a trans-continental railroad. Ambrose’s book records both the stories of the famous engineers and railroad officials who directed the project, as well as the many forgotten Irish and Chinese workers who did the unglamorous and dangerous work of building the railroad. One of the railroads responsible for the project, the Union Pacific, also eventually came to be part of E.H. Harriman’s empire, and was part of the 1911 Shopmen’s strike. The book can be found in the library’s nonfiction section under Transportation->Railroads->History->AMB
Illinois Central: Main Line of Mid-America, by Donald J. Heimburger is a beautiful pictoral history of the Illinois Central Railroad, featuring hundreds of full-color photos of steam and diesel engines operated by the Illinois Central Railroad. For those who, like me, can struggle to visualize what Clinton looked like in the days when it was a railroad town, this book does a lot to help understand what activity around the ICRR depot would have looked like. The book can be found in the library’s non-fiction section under Transportation->Railroads->History->HEI
“Clinton’s Share in the Strike.” Farmer City Journal (Farmer City, IL), Oct 6, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643353964
Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations, Created by the Act of August 23, 1912 vol. 10. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/chicago_manual_17th_edition/cmos_formatting_and_style_guide/books.html
Park, W. L. The Facts About the Shopmen’s Strike. Chicago: 1911. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiuo.ark:/13960/t6rz5k84c&view=1up&seq=1&skin=2021
Person, Carl E., The Lizard’s Trail. Chicago: The Lake Publishing Company, 1918. https://books.google.com/books?id=9lE3AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
“Rail Crisis Near.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Aug. 25, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643321507/
“Strike Hits Clinton.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Oct. 6, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643321807
“13 Historic Photos of Railroads in Clinton.” Herald and Review (Decatur, IL), Jun 1, 2021. https://herald-review.com/gallery/history/13-historic-photos-of-railroads-in-clinton/collection_e902f500-5dba-57d2-bedb-225884113c45.html#1