The great New Orleans streetcar strike of 1929, which lasted more than four months, was the most violent labor strike in the city’s history.
On July 1, after weeks of unsuccessful negotiations, approximately a thousand members of the Carmen’s Union, Division 194, walked out on strike. It claimed New Orleans Public Service, Inc., or NOPSI, which operated the streetcar system and other public utilities, had reduced streetcar workers’ pay and fired union members arbitrarily. It demanded pay increases up to 30 percent, a closed shop contract, and union participation in all grievances and employee promotions. Union members also objected to the pro-company Progressive Benevolent and Social Club formed by NOPSI to counter the union.
NOPSI responded, claiming revenues and ridership were down and the cost of living had decreased since its 1925 contract with the union. It also would not agree to a closed shop contract or turn disciplinary control of its employees over to the union.
The line was drawn. Within days, NOPSI imported over 900 strikebreakers from northern cities who, along with non-striking workers, reinstated streetcar service – a move that triggered violence. On July 5, an estimated crowd of 10,000 onlookers stood by as striking streetcar workers attacked and burned this streetcar at the foot of Canal Street.
For the next four months, armed strikers took to the streets, attacking strikebreakers and loyal workers. They tore up streetcar tracks, broke windows at car barns, burned the Canal Street car barn, and piled timbers and poured concrete on car rails. At least two strikers were killed and hundreds on both sides injured. Throughout the strike, newspapers reported bombs exploding under streetcars and at several streetcar barns. Union officials disavowed the bombings, claiming it was the work of “Reds.” On Aug. 13 strikers attacked City Hall.
In September NOPSI offered union officials a new contract, which they rejected. In response, the company withdrew the offer, but on Oct. 31 union members voted 889 to 21 to accept the contract “without reservation.” But it was too late. The strike lingered on for weeks, falling farther into the back pages of local newspapers. On Nov. 21 NOPSI and 900 returning and non-striking streetcar workers formed the “Co-Operative Street Railway Employees Association of the New Orleans Public Service, Inc.” for “the purpose of collective bargaining and mutual benefits.” Though some union members remained off the job, the strike was dead.
A historical sidebar – the 1929 strike took place on the eve of the Great Depression and, more importantly, it gave New Orleans its “poor-boy” sandwich. As the late University of New Orleans historian Michael Mizell-Nelson once told the story, Martin Brothers’ Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market, owned by former streetcar conductors and former union members Bennie and Clovis Martin, provided free meals to strikers. The most popular being a sandwich made on a long, narrow loaf created by John Gendusa’s bakery especially for the sandwich. When a striker entered the restaurant, as the story goes, Bennie or Clovis would call out, “Here comes another poor boy.”