New York street cleaners and garbage workers (sometimes referred to as 'ashcart men') went on strike on November 8, 1911, over 2,000 men walking off their jobs in protest over staffing and work conditions.
More importantly, that April, the city relegated garbage pickup to nighttime shifts only, and cleaners often worked solo. This may have been acceptable in warmer weather, but winter was approaching. At a union rally that evening, a union representative proclaimed, "A 200-pound can was a mighty big load for one man to lift into a garbage wagon ....... [Our] men are already falling ill with pneumonia and rheumatism and ... they demanded the right to work in the sunlight and the warmer weather of the daytime."
In total, almost over 2,000 workers left their jobs in retaliation, "because they didn't like to work in the dark," said the New York Sun, derisively. [source]
By Nov. 11, garbage was heaped along street corners, and coal ash swirled into the street, creating a blackened, smelly stew along the cobblestones. The city brought in temporary workers to carry off the more egregious piles of filth away, but harangues and violence by union protesters --"mobs assaulting and stoning drivers" -- required they be protected by police.
New Yorkers had lived through such a strike before, as recently as 1907, but strikers found little public support this time around. Newspapers, little sympathetic to the strikers, highlighted the growing threat of disease and the perceived selfishness of the workers. "The right to strike of public employees, who enjoy the advantage of being listed in the civil service, is more than doubtful," said the New York Times.
During bouts between strikebreakers and police, over two dozen people were injured and one man was even killed by a falling chimney. Meanwhile, Mayor William Jay Gaynor was resolute in rejecting the cleaners demands. The efforts of the workers failed, and many went back to their jobs the next week, some heavily penalized for their participation in the strike.
Here are a few images from those foul-smelling days. These photographs are far more pleasant to look at than they must have been to shoot!
Horse-drawn garbage wagons collect trash during the four-day garbage strike.
Police protection those who broke from the strikers to clean the city streets.
Crowds form in the streets watching the garbage carts go by. I don't know whether these are strikers or just curiosity seekers!
Boys captivated by the mounted police guarding the garbage carts. In the second photography, a couple rowdy boys are actually chasing after a garbage cart.
Violence against a garbage cart. This vehicle is pelted with stones at the corner of East 57th Street.
Another set of strike breakers rush by this street corner in their garbage cart.
Meanwhile, a boiler company took advantage of the strike to run this grim advertisement for their garbage burners in the New York Sun.
This photo series courtesy the Library of Congress. Portions of this story originally ran on the 100th anniversary of this event in November 2011.