Uruguayan general strike for streetcar laborers' rights, 1911

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Timing
Time Period:  
10 May
1911
to
21 May
1911
Location and Goals
Country: 
Uruguay
Location City/State/Province: 
Montevideo
Goals: 
To procure better working conditions including shorter work days, accident insurance, better payment, breaks during the work day, deposits on uniforms and free transit passes for all workers in the streetcar industry. They also demanded that the workers that had been fired for being activists be reinstated.
 

After the First World War, Uruguay’s tourism industry boomed, seeing an influx of tourists from Europe into the city of Montevideo. Following the introduction of the electric streetcar in 1906, industry in Montevideo underwent massive changes to adapt to its new international popularity and the changing industrial landscape of the 20th century.

Streetcar workers in Montevideo felt most of the weight of these changes in industry, as the city began to rely more and more heavily on the growing streetcars for transportation. With long hours, harsh working conditions, and few benefits, streetcar workers faced a congested workplace with excessive liabilities for accidents or mistakes in operation that could get them imprisoned.

Streetcar workers were not the only discontented group. In the end of 1910 the labor movement was ignited by walkouts by bakers, stonecutters, and sellers compounded by a four-month strike of the teamster’s labor union.

In early May, 1911, the Federacion Obrera Regional Uruguaya (FORU), a group dominated by anarchists fighting capitalism and the reduced quality of labor conditions in Uruguay, convened a congress. Their debates on the state of labor in Uruguay and discussions of labor uprisings in other South American nations were noticed by the state, which arrested the Federation’s leader on charges of ‘murder.’

Incited by FORU, the streetcar workers had already began to organize their own secret union, despite being threatened by the state. The union’s membership rose steadily, and soon transit companies began readily firing any workers they suspected to be activists, further enflaming the unrest. On May 10, 1911, the union delivered an ultimatum to the transit companies, demanding that they reinstate nine of the fired workers within 48 hours or face a collective walkout by the some 1000 members of the union.

The transit companies stood fast, refusing to reinstate the workers. As they had promised, the members of the streetcar union went on strike the following afternoon, May 11, 1911. Word spread quickly and trolley stations all over Montevideo were abandoned. As the strike progressed over the next few days, the streetcar workers created a list of sixteen demands that included better working hours, more acceptable conditions, accident insurance, a reform in wages and breaks during work hours.

The strike spread quickly to other areas of business including newspapers, where delivery boys helped to spread awareness about the streetcar workers’ strife. Students swarmed working streetcars to try and convince workers to join the strike. Some unions provided funds to help the families of the striking laborers, including streetcar workers from Buenos Aires, vendors, food providers, and mechanics. Members of the public got involved as well, harassing working streetcar laborers and attempting to get more to join the strike.

The general strike of May 1911 was the first of its kind in Uruguay, and became a campaign supported by all walks of life in Montevideo. Because Montevideo had become increasingly dependent on the streetcar service since its introduction in 1906, the city’s life began to dwindle. The streetcar laborers on strike sought to keep the public informed by creating and distributing a manifesto detailing the reasons behind their strike. In addition, the union held daily assemblies that the press attended regularly, often interviewing participants in the strike and spreading their word.

On May 21, ten days into the strike, the companies for which the streetcar workers worked agreed to a few of their demands, including a modified workday and wages. The same day, up to 20,000 union members participated in a public demonstration organized by the streetcar workers congress, FORU, and the Socialist Party. But with the mounting pressure from the public and the tenuous circumstances the strike created for their families, the streetcar workers on strike decided to approve the concessions made by the companies and return to work the following day with a half-way victory.

When many of the workers returned to their posts on the 22 May 1911, they found that their employers were unwilling to hire them back, and that the promises that had been made by the transit companies had been misleading. The strikers, many of which were facing difficult economic situations after their ten-day strike, were furious when their employers refused to re-add the ‘un-loyal’ workers onto payroll.

This triggered a second general strike that involved a much larger stratum of the working class. At 2 pm, trolley workers abandoned their posts and stationed themselves throughout the city calling for workers to join their cause in a general strike.

By 23 May Montevideo had essentially shut down with tens of thousands of workers from numerous different industries participating. There were instances of property destruction during this strike that including vandalism and dumping, but it is unclear whether this was occasional or widespread. The general strike lasted until the end of May, ending somewhat unsuccessfully when the unions realized that their government could not actually affect the policies of foreign labor companies.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Rosenthal, Anton. "Streetcar Workers and the Transformation of Montevideo: The General Strike of May 1911." The Americas , Vol. 51, No. 4 (Apr., 1995), pp. 471-494

Alexander, Robert J., and Eldon M. Parker. A History of Organized Labor in Uruguay and Paraguay. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Elena Ruyter, 31/10/2011