Sunday, June 19, 2011

Local History: 1929 Streetcar Workers' Strike and the Invention of the Po'Boy

In 1929, eighteen-hundred unionized streetcar drivers and motormen from Local 194 engaged in a militant and successful strike against New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI), now known as Entergy. The strike lasted from July 1st until October, and occurred in the midst of the Great Depression and in a year when transit workers were on strike all over the U.S. It became one of the fiercest battles between workers and management in New Orleans' history.

Just 5 days after the strike began, strikebreaking scabs were brought in from Buffalo, N. Y. to run the streetcars, but the first car out of the Canal Street barns was pelted with bricks and paving stones by a crowd. The scab motorman quit in five minutes. Four cars then left the barn under heavy police guard. Two, passengerless, crawled around the beltline. A third was driven back by angry strikers. A fourth was burned on Canal Street before a jeering multitude. Some policemen fired into the mob. Other policemen resigned rather than defend the strikebreakers.

5 Streetcars were torched during the strike.
A series of bombings, dynamiting, fights, shootings and assaults occurred in relation to the strike, crowds as large as 10,000 gathered to support the strikers[1], and NOPSI lost some 4 million fares because of the strike[2], causing them considerable financial damage.

During the strike, the Martin Brothers restaurant, owned by former union streetcar workers, invented the Poor Boy sandwich to feed the hungry strikers cheaply. They continued to make po'boys after the strike because the Great Depression left so many people destitute, even going so far as to give out lettuce and tomato po'boys completely free to keep people from starving. The po'boy is now a famous New Orleans tradition, even having a version suitable for vegetarians and vegans, the french-fry po'boy.

Awesome letter from Clovis & Bennie Martin to the strikers.
Two strikers were killed, five trolleys were burned to the tracks, a car barn was dynamited, trackage was destroyed, and switches were cemented in place during the fight. It must have been a crazy summer to live in the Big Easy! But, with the immense solidarity shown by the people of New Orleans, the strikers were able to eventually win their demands and return to work, and New Orleanians could start riding the streetcars again.

So every time you eat a delicious po'boy, take a second to remember the beautiful gesture of working class solidarity that led to it's creation. It makes them taste even better!


  1. Sweet post! There are some amazing pictures of the strike in the New Orleans archives at UNO if you haven't checked those out.

  2. I'm looking for a pic to blow up to make into art. Is there any of strikers around a burning/burned out streetcar by any chance?

  3. There totally is! It's in the Louisiana Collections on the 4th floor of the Earl K. Long library. (no names please)

  4. Hi. I have my play, Ana's Key to Anarchy, going up in the Seguin (Texas) ArtsFest 1012. It has all to do with the streetcar strike and one old lady's objection to Acting Mayor Walmsley calling the strikers anarchists. Not that they aren't, but she doesn't like his fear-mongering motives. It's a sweet little one act for two women, Dorothy Dix the second woman, Ana Fortier of Le Petit Versaille (St. James Parish) the first lady.