Stephen F. Austin State University

Union Strike (July 2017)

Union Strike

by Van Craddock

When East Texas express handlers walked off their jobs in 1903, residents feared violence in the union strike. But the only fellow hauled off to jail was the Gregg County sheriff.

In October 1903, members of the newly organized Brotherhood of Railway Expressmen struck the Pacific Express Company for higher wages and better work hours.

The strike started in St. Louis, Mo., spread to Little Rock, Ark., and soon reached Texas. On Oct. 15 express employees struck at Longview, Marshall, Tyler and Texarkana. In all, some 6,000 union "messengers" walked off jobs in the Midwest and Southwest.

Community leaders were concerned that violence could break out as union employees walked out and were replaced by non-union replacement workers. In Longview and elsewhere the replacements were jeered as "scabs."

As one train pulled out of Longview on Oct. 20, the Longview Times-Clarion told readers "someone laid two or three large torpedoes on the track, which exploded with a loud report." There were no injuries.

An injunction was issued by United States District Judge D.E. Bryant restraining anyone from interfering "by force, threats or intimidation" with Pacific Express Company's new replacement employees.

But on Oct. 23, a group of pro-union residents marched to the Longview depot. Gregg County Sheriff S.R. Thrasher entered the depot and allegedly "with oaths and imprecations denounced and vilified" the express firm's four replacement employees. According to the workers' formal complaint, the sheriff noted that he "did not like a bone in their bodies and that they had better get out of town."

Furthermore, the sheriff said the express strikers were his friends and "a crowd of associates was on the outside of the depot and subject to his call."

Scared out of their wits, the replacement workers "within a few hours … left Longview and quit discharging" their duties as express handlers.

That night, a large crowd assembled on the Gregg County Courthouse lawn. The local paper reported that "merchants, heads of labor organizations and prominent men of this place" spoke in favor of the strike. They then approved a resolution "in full sympathy" for strikers' demands.

On Oct. 28, unable to find replacements for the replacements, Pacific Express closed its Longview office.

Irate Pacific Express Company officials complained to federal officials, who promptly arrested Sheriff Thrasher and ordered him to appear in United States Circuit Court at Texarkana, Ark, on contempt charges.

On Nov. 2, the Brotherhood of Railway Expressmen announced that the two-week strike had failed and union members were advised "if possible to make their peace with the express company."

While the strike ended and many express employees returned to work, Sheriff Thrasher traveled to Arkansas to face his contempt charges.

"The sheriff had some able attorneys to defend him," noted the Dallas Morning News of Nov. 12, "and made a stubborn fight against the contempt charge."

But following testimony from several witnesses - including replacement workers Tom Rice and George Givens - Thrasher was found guilty and sentenced to 60 days in county jail. Beginning Nov. 16, Thrasher served his sentence without incident and was released in mid-January.

The arrest and incarceration didn't hurt Thrasher's popularity in Gregg County. In November 1904, he was re-elected sheriff.

After leaving office in 1906, Thrasher was involved in ranching and banking. In 1913 he built the Grand Opera House in downtown Longview. Unfortunately, the fancy 1,200-seat entertainment center burned in 1915.