In Chapters XL and XLI of Sister Carrie, the Brooklyn trolley strike of 1895 is described in great detail. Hurstwood, who is at first sympathetic to the strikers, becomes a scab out of desperation to find employment. He works as a trolley car motorman for a single day, and is subject to obloquy and physical abuse by strikers and their sympathizers.
See text of Sister Carrie, Chapters XL and XLI (downloadable word document above).
On the morning of January 14, 1895, none of the streetcars on four of Brooklyn’s six main trolley roads left their barns. The strike that followed lasted over five weeks and was the largest and most violent labor dispute that Brooklyn had ever witnessed. Before it was over, thousands of scabs had been brought in from all over the country, the National Guard of Brooklyn and of neighboring New York City had been called out, and at least two civilians had been killed. Throughout the nation, the press depicted Brooklyn as an armed camp, where the striking Knights of Labor and their sympathizers clashed hourly with the militia and the police. …
Public attention centered on the trolleys themselves: their effect on the city, the impact of their changing technology, and the behavior of the companies that built and operated them. These issues were debated passionately by many Brooklynites and public opinion was considered crucial to the success or failure of the strike. Although the little attention that has been paid to this strike by historians has tended to emphasize public support for the companies, the strikers also received widespread support in their struggle. …
On January 11 the strike question was put to a vote of the membership, and the result was overwhelming: 3997 in favor, 133 opposed. On Monday morning, January 14, almost no trolleys ran on Brooklyn’s streets.
It had been reported that the companies were advertising for nonunion men to come to Brooklyn well before the strike vote was even taken. In any case, once the strike was declared they lost little time in hiring non-union men. The companies had placed notices in the papers of 20-30 different cities–virtually every American city with a trolley system. [Daniel] Lewis and [Cassius] Wicker [officials of the transportation companies affected] made it known that they considered that the men who refused to take out their cars had quit, and that they would replace them as soon as possible. [Benjamin] Norton [president of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad
Company] said that he would run no cars until Wednesday, in order to give his men a chance to reconsider and to return to work.
The cars started running slowly–on Monday, Brooklyn Heights succeeded in operating only 17 of its usual 900 cars, while the Atlantic Avenue company ran only a single mail car, with an engineer as the motorman and a purchasing agent as a conductor. In Norton’s words: “As a means of transportation, it was a complete failure.” In the days that followed men looking for work flocked to the companies’ offices, and gradually more cars were run and more lines were open. Men came from literally all over the country to work on the Brooklyn lines, and their stories are a testimony to the hard times that prevailed in the nation. Like fictional George Hurstwood, who came to Brooklyn to try his luck on the trolley lines in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, the scabs were generally desperate for work. …
The Brooklyn trolley strike was defeated in spite of public support, not for lack of it. The entire military force remained on active duty in Brooklyn until January 28, and some troops remained until February 1. The strike officially lasted for another two weeks, and strike arrests were still occurring as late as February 24. On February 9, more than a week after the troops were withdrawn, there were still eight lines on which not a car was running.”
The principal reason the strike failed was the determination of the companies to wait the strikers out. As Norton said, “As long as I have a man left to operate a car, as long as I have a powerhouse to move a car, as long as I have a car to run, I shall operate the railroad. When I have not a wheel that will turn around then I will stop and wait to see what will happen next.” In the face of such resolve, the men needed both strength and staying power. However, the economic depression, the ready availability of scabs, the bitter cold weather, the failure of all legal and legislative remedies, and, of course, the city’s use of force against the strikers all combined to erode their ability to outlast the companies. The strike ended with some strikers drifting back to work, and it was officially declared off on February 16. When the companies failed to hire back more than a fraction of the old men as individuals, labor called a boycott of the lines which lasted until August 9, when the companies agreed to reinstate old employees as quickly as places opened.”
— Sarah M. Henry, “The Strikers and Their Sympathizers: Brooklyn in the Trolley Strike of 1895,” Labor History 32.3 (summer 1991): 329- 353
Among the issues underlying the strike were the following: schedules, timetables, and allocation of work to different classes of drivers; the length of the working day (then set at twelve hours); wages (wages were around $2 to $1.50 a day, depending on seniority and job classification of drivers); and the change from horse-driven to electric trolley cars, which appeared to threaten a reduction in trips made by full-day cars, whose drivers were paid the at the highest rate.
Sister Carrie is a very good first novel.
It is not as if Dreiser somehow blundered his way into a classic; or as if, with no idea what he was doing — with blinkers on, so to speak — he succeeded as he did.
As a novelist, he can be most closely compared to Balzac, whose influence on Dreiser is evident.
As a stylist, Dreiser (not often in Sister Carrie, often in later works) could be atrocious. The writing — which is to say prose style — in Sister Carrie is adequate, but the book would not on that score have earned praise or critical regard, or earned for Dreiser rights to be taken seriously as a writer.
Dreiser’s strengths lay in plot and characterization. In storytelling.
Could the same be said of James Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, or Henry Miller? I think not.
Dreiser absorbed, digested, made his own what makes Balzac a great and unequivocally readable novelist.
And there was also Dreiser’s apprentice work: his journalism for the St. Louis Republic (mostly) and other papers. Read his Republic stories and you will see diligence in reporting — the pains he took, the lengths he would go to, to get the story — combined with an unmistakable genius for narration, storytelling ability.
Facts plus narrative. There is a strong factual underpinning in Sister Carrie, as evidenced by the skillful interweaving by Dreiser of real people and incidents, real places, and real events (researched by Dreiser using his reportorial skills) such as the Brooklyn trolley car strike into the narrative.
Dreiser had an inborn talent to take a substratum of actual facts and with it, flesh out a story with characters embedded in it (the principal ones often drawn from real life) who bring the story to life.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here, for reference, are several news stories covering the strike.