This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
In 1881, Salt Lake City was crowned the world's fifth city to generate electricity from a centrally located power station. By August 1889, the city's first electric streetcar replaced horsepower, and newfangled jobs were on the rise. But within months, labor and management relations grew strained with streetcar workers' rights short lived.
On the evening of Sept. 16, 1890, more than 130 streetcar conductors and motormen voted to put on the brakes and go out on strike. Employees of the Salt Lake City Railway Co., they had recently formed the Street Car Men's Union and joined the Utah Federation of Trades and Labor Council. They believed their grievances were reasonable and easily remedied. They also wanted recognition of their union and the Federation Trades men. And they didn't want to strike.
"The men are not asking for an increase of wages, nor for shorter hours," reported the Sept. 16, 1890, Salt Lake Times. "They're willing to work the allotted nine hours, but they object to being asked to clean up the machinery and motors after midnight. They claim that it not only gives them an extra hour's work, but spoils the uniforms for which they themselves have to pay."
Obligated to be dressed neatly at all times or risk dismissal most of the men who bought three $27 suits yearly couldn't afford to get them dirty. They suggested putting a four-member crew of streetcar cleaners on the line. "The extra cost of hostlers would be $10 per day," the Sept. 17, 1890, Salt Lake Tribune reported, "and the boys were willing to hire this service done themselves if the company would increase their pay 10 cents per day to cover the costs."
In response, the company president, A. W. McCune, and his superintendent said their men were handsomely paid $2 for a 9-hour workday while streetcar workers in most other cities received 20 cents an hour. They maintained the cleanup process required the men "merely to lift the traps and oil or sandpaper the machinery from above," and took less than a half-hour to accomplish.
They said the union misrepresented itself as being "only a benevolent affair." They would not recognize the Federation Trades representatives. Moreover, they would not stand being told what to do by their employees. Refusing to negotiate, they said it was up to the individual worker to stay with the company or leave. Seemingly overnight, they began hiring new streetcar workers.
On Wednesday, when the strikers congregated at the "common campground" on the corner of Main Street and First South, policemen were positioned nearby but the protest was peaceful. At its close, members of the Liberal Band and 131 strikers wended their way up the street carrying American flags, signs and banners that proclaimed their intention to stay the course unless concessions were made. Later that night, hackmen made a bundle taking the earnest but enervated strikers home by horse and wagon.
The following day, policemen accompanied several streetcars that were now operated by new recruits local Utah boys, raw in training, hungry for work and considered scabs by the strikers.
As word of the strike spread, hordes of people congregated downtown. Empathy circulated along with stories about current streetcar mishaps, including a jolting mechanical correction when a "current slipped its bitts and bridle," the car lurched and passengers painfully bounced into its sides.
Boycotting streetcars altogether, sympathizers contributed to the cause. In a second parade, the steady marching beat of the popular Liberal and Held bands was followed by the energized strikers. More than 19 unions representing members from hod carriers, cigar makers and plasterers to metal workers and tailors were joined by "solid walls of humanity."
The populace supported the strikers and called for arbitration. But the company remained steadfast. By the strike's third day, 20 cars were already running, more men were hired even former strikers who yielded to company policy. Within the week, the union was broken.
Eileen Hallet Stone, author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Living History columns in the Salt Lake Tribune, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional sources: Salt Lake Times, Sept. 18 and 19, 1890; Deseret News, Sept. 20, 1980 and John S. McCormick's excerpts from "The History of Utah Power and Light Co."