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The Transcontinental Railroad | Article

The Chinese Workers' Strike

Although it was already early summer of 1867, portions of California's Donner Pass remained blanketed in ten- to twelve-foot drifts. As long as the snow piled up it had to be shoveled, which inhibited progress in the Sierra. The Central Pacific directors contemplated their elemental setback with disappointment. They were losing hope that their rails would extend from the east portal of the Summit Tunnel to the Truckee River by year's end. Tunneling efforts continued in earnest, but the company was having trouble attracting fresh laborers. Executive e.B. Crocker complained in a letter to his colleague Collis Huntington that competing mining concerns were siphoning the workers from their route. "We have proved their value as laborers & everybody is trying Chinese & now we can't get them," Crocker wrote. His brother Charles, the project's contractor, raised the workers' monthly wages four dollars — to $35 a month — in hopes that news of the increase would attract more workers to the summit. The results were not what he expected.

Grievances — and Demands
On June 25, Chinese workers left their grading work along a two-mile stretch on the eastern Sierra slope and went back to their camp. One-eyed construction chief James Harvey Strobridge lit into the men, but his bluster produced no effect. The workers demanded $40 a month instead of $35. They requested a reduction in hours. A workday on the open Sierra lasted from dawn till dusk; the Chinese laborers wanted to work no more than ten hours daily. They also asked for shorter shifts in the cramped, dangerous tunnels. Charles Crocker called in leaders of the movement and promised them he'd stop work entirely before considering a single one of their demands. The men took his message back to the camps, but still the workers refused to budge. Two days later, workers struck all along the line, and raised their wage demands to $45 a month.

Non-Violent Tactics
"If there had been that number of white laborers... it would have been impossible to control them," Crocker would later recall. "But this strike of the Chinese was just like Sunday all along the work. These men stayed in their camps. That is, they would come out and walk around, but not a word was said. No violence was perpetrated along the whole line." At first Crocker figured opium dealers had instigated the action; then he suspected rival Union Pacific agents. He did not seem to consider whether his men had a legitimate grievance. Instead, he simply cut off their supplies. He stopped agents from delivering food and provisions to the mountain. He kept butchers from providing meat. Then he left the Chinese men to sit in their camps for a week.

Search for Replacement Workers
In Sacramento, E. B. Crocker and another CP executive, Mark Hopkins, feared that their work would be permanently paralyzed. They advocated taking advantage of the Freedmen's Bureau to provide African American labor from the East. Hopkins theorized, "A Negro labor force would tend to keep the Chinese steady, as the Chinese have kept the Irishmen quiet."

Confrontation, Threats -- and a Bloodless Resolution
After a week's worth of lean rations had settled upon the men, Charles Crocker returned to the work camps. He dictated the options as he saw them: wages and hours were immutable. If the hungry Chinese workers returned to work immediately they would only be fined, but if they continued on strike they would not get paid for the whole month of June. Motivated by malnutrition, most men agreed to return to work. Those who did not were outraged at their companions. When it looked like these remainders might get out of hand, Crocker brought up a posse of well-armed white men to emphasize his point. Work on the mountain resumed.

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