The Garbage Strike of 1911
This photograph shows First Avenue and 50th street looking north. A policeman is running after boys who were harassing and chasing a garbage truck (to the left of the trolley) driven by a strike-breaker (now what would be termed a scab) in November 1911.
On November 8, 1911 New York City’s garbage collector’s went on strike demanding better working conditions. The ashcart men did not like working at night when seeing dangerous items deposited in the trash and obstacles on the street was difficult, so they wanted to work only during the daylight hours when it was warmer and safer. Another complaint the union lodged was having only one man to lift trash cans that sometimes weighed over 200 pounds.
City officials were irate and refused to give in. Earlier in July during a smaller garbage strike, Mayor William Jay Gaynor warned that every worker who did not report to work would be fired. Gaynor told Street Cleaning Commissioner William H. Edwards and declared to the public that the workers were “well paid and the night work was successful.”
Strike-breakers were employed at $5 per day. The strikers resorted to violence and beat any strike-breakers, as riots broke out throughout the city. Mayor Gaynor insisted there were no strike-breakers being employed. The street sweepers who had not reported to work had quit their jobs.
On November 10th a strike-breaker was killed. All over the city strike-breakers were attacked as the police struggled to protect them.
For over a week the city wallowed in huge piles of garbage that obstructed traffic as refuse was sporadically picked up. The streets reeked and the public was fed up.
On November 15, Commissioner Edwards decided to keep all 4,426 strike-breakers as his new street cleaning force. The strike was declared broken.
For the next two weeks garbage had to be removed neighborhood by neighborhood with police protection.
The strikers pleaded to be taken back, with nearly all of the strikers saying they had been forced to walk out.
Incredibly, on November 20 ,1911, Commissioner Edwards met with 1,147 men that requested their jobs back in a marathon six hour procession. Each man was asked why he had left his job and to some of the men Commissioner Edwards said he understood and believed their stories of being intimidated and threatened by other strikers.
To others the Commissioner was indignant.
According to the New York Times:
A man who looked like he might make a fine gang leader said he had been intimidated.
“I’d like to see the looks of the man that’d intimidate you” cut in Commissioner Edwards. “Now you’d fight at the drop of the hat and you know it. Why don’t you say so, instead of trying to put over that kind of bull con on me. You were up at the corner ready to slug anybody that tried to go to work, weren’t you now?”
“Yes, Sir, I was,” the delinquent replied, throwing out his chest with a show of pride.
On November 22, after reviewing the cases with his assistants, Commissioner Edwards restored 140 of the 1,147 strikers to their jobs. The rest were fired.
Rioting broke out again and the replacement street cleaners were attacked for days on end, even with police protection.
On December 4, the men who had been fired, refused to allow their replacements to remove snow which had accumulated in an early season storm. Again violence broke out all over the city.
The violence continued and culminated on December 11, 1911. With a policeman standing right next to him while shoveling garbage in front of 239 East 3rd Street, William Sweezey, a strike-breaker was killed when he was struck by a 15 pound stone hurled from a tenement roof. Two former street cleaners were arrested for the murder.
The violence then subsided. The garbage strike was over.
In the photograph, the corner building with the gables and arches on the left directly above the trolley at 351 East 51st Street was a school building which was designed by George W. Debevoise, who was the Superintendent for the Board of Education. Debevoise’s schools were designed in the Romanesque Revival style. The building was placed on the National Registrar of Historical Places in 1974. That did not prevent it from being gutted in the late 1990’s with the exterior walls preserved. A new 20 story structure was built inside of the walls and is now the exclusive Beekman Regent condominium.