The history of the labor movement in the South is varied and colorful, though little known. The first Southern unions were formed in the major cities early in the 19th century, especially in the building and printing trades. Shortly after the Civil War, the longshoremen and the various railroad unions organized vigorous Southern affiliates. Among the railroad unions, in fact, the machinists, boilermakers, and blacksmiths all were of Southern origin—they all were founded around 1888 in Atlanta, which was the South’s most important railroad center at the time. Among the longshoremen, the screwmen were in an especially strategic position since they stowed cotton and tabacco aboard ships with jackscrews; these products had to be carefully packed in order to be profitable. Among industrial organizations, the brewery workers and mine workers organized in the South in the 1880s and 1890s. The first significant general labor organization was the Knights of Labor, which sent 15 organizers into the South in 1878, especially into Alabama and Kentucky. A successful 1884 strike on the Jay Gould railroads catapulted the Knights into the undisputed leadership of the nation’s labor movement. The Knight’s primary goals were the eighthour work day, industrial safety, child labor laws, and equal pay for women. The Southern Knights numbered close to 50,000 in 1886, out of a total membership of 730,000 throughout the country.
Gould goaded the union into precipitate action by firing a Texas union leader. Under the dynamic leadership of Martin Irons, some 9,000 employees of Gould’s Southwestern railroads walked out. The strike began peacefully, but soon Jim Courtright, a “notorious desperado,” both acting city marshall of Fort Worth and a hired gunman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, shot down three or four pickets. One of his deputies was killed at the Battle of Buttermilk Switch in Fort Worth. The Texas militia was then dispatched to Fort Worth. Their presence, along with 200 federal deputies who were also company gunmen, the virtual absence of a strike fund, the availability of cheap scabs, the presence of corporate spies in all the union assemblies, and corporate control of the courts insured Gould’s victory in less than two months.