Shortly before the arrest of Homer Plessy in June 1892, a successful streetcar strike initiated a wave of union organizing that culminated in what has been called the first biracial general strike in US history. Between 20,000 and 25,000 union workers, who together with their families represented a great deal of the city’s population, stopped work on November 8 and remained on strike until November 11. The workers organized a city-wide united front called the Workingmen’s Amalgamated Council, located on Exchange Alley. The strikers abandoned the main goal of the action—securing the right to bargain collectively within a union shop in all workplaces—under the threat of martial law. The strike itself, however, represented labor's temporary rejection of the race-baiting and fear-mongering practiced by white workers as well as businessmen. Significantly, one black union representative served on the negotiating committee.
The 1880s had been marked by several integrated labor strikes and demonstrations, but stirrings of the general strike originated in May 1892, when the streetcar operators’ successful walkout won recognition for a closed shop and shorter hours, from 16 to 12 hours per day. Local labor unity was enhanced throughout the year, as the American Federation of Labor's (AFL) organizing campaign added 30 new unions to the previous 65. African-American labor organizer George Norton was mostly responsible for the AFL's success in chartering biracial unions.
The Board of Trade proclaimed that it would sign an agreement with the Scalesmen and Packers' unions, but not with the third group in the Triple Alliance—the Teamsters' Union—because the Board refused to “‘enter into any agreement with n— —rs.’” To do so would mean placing the employers under the command of blacks, they argued. Following two postponements, the general strike went into effect on November 8. About half of the city’s unions joined in the strike, and all of them demanded the closed shop. The streetcar and printers’ unions broke contracts to join the strike. The powerful cotton trade unions remained at work, and their employer, the Cotton Exchange, refrained from appearing to cooperate with the Board of Trade. Without precedent, workers from lower-middle-class occupations with no previous attempts to organize, such as musicians, clothing and shoe store clerks, and workers from the utility companies such as the gas and waterworks also participated in the strike. One of the humblest groups of toilers imaginable, those largely black and immigrant street railway workers who built and maintained the rail systems, did not seem to join in the general strike. Shortly after the carmen’s successful May strike, tracklayers for one of the railway companies also tried to strike. The company fired the track crews and quickly replaced them.
Pro-labor Mayor John Fitzpatrick refused the business community’s calls to intervene to end the strike, so Governor Murphy Foster prepared to send state militia into New Orleans. The threat of violence caused the organizers of the General Strike to bring it to an end and accept labor agreements written on terms set by business. Wage increases were provided, but the settlement did not include recognition of unions. The streetcar union and its contract had been dissolved once they had decided to participate in the General Strike.
Though unsuccessful, the strike’s broad reach throughout the working class and middle-class community likely owed much to the earlier success of the carmen in securing their union shop contract. Still, organized labor in New Orleans lost much, especially the streetcar workers, whose union recognition ended. The day the strike ended, the Item’s “Labor Department” offered the following review of the strike: “Both to the working and employing classes this demonstration must prove of great value. It should convince even the hardest task masters—and it is by this class that the strike was caused—that even the humblest toilers have rights deserving of consideration.”