William D. Haywood


The Strike of the Scavengers

(January 1912)


Source: From International Socialist Review, Vol. 12 No. 7, January 1912, pp. 391–393.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2019).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


IF 4,000 Wall street brokers or 4,000 assorted employers suddenly left their offices or were carried off by a pestilence in New York, the life and activities of that city, after the first sensation, would go on much as usual. Society and industry would proceed with but little interruption. But when 4,000 humble street cleaning employees suddenly quit work in the metropolis in the second week in November the entire administration of the second greatest city in the world was upset and for a time demoralized. High-salaried officials could do little but gnash their teeth be carried out. Rich and powerful merchants shrieked and groaned at the sight of the piles of odoriferous garbage standing untouched in front of their palaces of profit. Comfortable and well-fed householders and property owners held their noses and begged the agitated city government to do something. Four million people were threatened with pestilence and disease, which inevitably would have been widespread had not these despised and usually silent workers chosen a cold and freezing period in which to strike.

On the night of November 8 these garbage wagon drivers went out, their demand being a return to the daylight collection of garbage instead of the continental system of night work recently installed by Mayor Gaynor. The men contended that they were imposed upon by this continental system, the work at night being much more of a strain, and that in addition the hours had been increased from eight to ten or eleven without any additional pay.

When the demand for a change was first made of Commissioner Edwards the garbage cleaners received the following bulldozing reply, duly expressive of the feelings of a politician toward his underlings:

I understand that there is some dissatisfaction on the part of the drivers on account of night work. I want the drivers in the Department of Street Cleaning to thoroughly understand that night work will go on as usual, and any absentees or men failing to go to work will be dismissed from the Department of Street Cleaning and never be allowed to return.

Stable foremen will suspend any men failing to go to work and will forward charges to the main office.


William H. Edwards,

This reply was backed up by the following communication from Mayor Gaynor to Edwards:

Sir: In regard to the threatened strike of the drivers and garbage collectors of your department, be so good as to notify them at once by general order to strike just as soon as they see fit. And see to it that not one of the strikers gets back into the city employment again. We can get along without them. It will inconvenience the householders for a few days, but they will stand it patiently. Let the contract system be resorted to, if necessary.

The city pays the men of your department the highest wages for the shortest hours, and in addition, a pension law was passed for them last winter. If they think they can make the city conform to their dictation by striking they will find themselves grievously mistaken. The city’s business has to be done as the charter prescribes, and no strike can force it to be done in any other way. The city is not in a position of a private employer and able to make any terms with its employes it sees fit.


W.J. Gaynor,

In the face of official opposition and stern determination as expressed by the foregoing communications, the men themselves stood firm, with at least the result that the political scientists have a practical lesson to help solve as well as discuss.

Thousands of wagon loads of garbage were piling up in the streets, and in the congested districts of the east side there were some streets almost impassable. Extraordinary efforts were made to remove garbage from business centers and elite residential districts. It is in this instance as in all others that the poor and uninfluential are discriminated against. The fashionable localities looked fairly clean, while just a few squares away in the tenement districts the fermenting piles of cast-off filth were breeding disease germs that would first attack the poor, but that might indeed ravage the city. The city officials made every effort to break the strike, and although they resorted to the brutal tactics the employing and ruling classes are accustomed to use everywhere in like cases, they met with little success.

Detective agencies were enlisted and were paid $5 for each man they secured, the strikebreaker receiving for his services $3 per day. It requires at least three scabs to do the work of one husky garbage driver, in addition to the number of police required for guard duty. The change was an expensive experiment on the part of the city authorities.

There were many bitter popular demonstrations against the strikebreakers. One man was knocked senseless by a brick thrown from a near-by roof, and was then run over by a wagon that broke both of his legs. He died shortly after being taken to the hospital. A child was run over and killed by one of the mayor’s scabs. Some policemen were injured, but this is not worthy of particular mention, as they are all still alive. Many arrests were made and strikers were cruelly beaten.

One of the chief lessons to be learned is the inefficiency of scab labor. This is obvious on every hand. While no particular skill is required in the collection of garbage and sweeping of streets, it requires a certain physical standard that is not reached by the casually employed, who do the work slowly, gingerly, spilling at least a third on the street in their clumsy efforts. This same inefficiency prevails in every shop strike, but there the bosses are able to furtively conceal their helplessness behind closed doors. The spirit of many a strike has been broken by apparent success which perhaps is as much of a failure as New York’s strike-breaking department.

The importance of the least considered, even the scavenger in the machinery of modern living is another lesson to be learned. If this strike had occurred in the summer season the sweltering heat enveloping the piles of filth on the streets would have borne this home with deadly emphasis.

But the piles of garbage in the streets of America’s greatest city grew higher and higher. Abominable enough in other parts of town, the stench in east side streets was almost unendurable. So bad did the situation become that the Merchants’ Association issued an appeal to “good citizens” to come out and take the strikers’ places.

So frightened did the city officials become that they allowed the piles of garbage to be set afire, though this could not fail to do great damage to the streets and endanger lives and dwellings from flying sparks. Gaynor and Edwards declared they would never take the strikers back, but would turn over the street cleaning to· private contractors. Such is the deal handed to the workers under capitalist “municipal operation.”

The Socialist Party was quick to take a hand in the fight and held a big mass meeting in Cooper Union at which the treatment accorded the strikers was denounced.

The teamsters’ and truck drivers’ unions also pledged their “moral support,” but they didn’t give the strikers the kind of support they needed most. A general walk-out of all the teamsters in the city – “a stoppage of everything on wheels,” as one speaker put it – would have ended the fear of pestilence and won the garbage collectors’ strike for them in about one day. But that though “threatened,” never came.

Last updated on 10 June 2022