Joe Bruno on the Mob – James Farley — “King of the Strikebreakers”

He started out as a simple alter boy in upstate New York, but during his fast and furious life, James Farley became known as “The King of the Strikebreakers.”

James Farley was born in 1874, in the sleepy town of Malone, New York, just miles from the Canadian boarder. Although he became an alter boy in a Malone Catholic Church, Farley was a rough and tumble kid, always looking for trouble and mostly finding it.

When he was 15 years old, Farley ran away from home and headed south in New York State. In 1889, Farley took a job with Frank Robinson’s circus. The circus ran its course in Middletown, New York, so Farley traveled to nearby Monticello, when he found employment at the Madison House. There he worked as a poolroom attendant, a clerk, and then a bartender. His bosses liked Farley’s intelligence and toughness, and soon he was made the manager of the Madison House.

One day, Farley needed some dental worked done. While he was sitting in the dentist chair, Farley accidentally swallowed a huge lump of cocaine, which was then used as a painkiller. Farley completely freaked out, and instead of getting his dental work completed, he bolted from the dentist chair, ran madly out of the dentist’s office, and disappeared into the nearby woods. For weeks, Farley lived like an animal in the woods, while the local police sent out a search party looking for him.

The effects of the cocaine overdose having finally wore off, and Farley knowing his managerial position at the Madison House was toast, headed further south, until he reached Brooklyn, New York. Farley’s first job in Brooklyn was as a rail guard for the Revenue Service, but soon Farley transferred to the the Brooklyn City Railroad Company, where he toiled in the power house, mostly shoveled coal.

In 1895, the relationships between the railroad workers union (District Assembly No. 75 Knights of Labor) and the Brooklyn City Railroad Company, had frazzled to the point where a strike was inevitable. There had been a collective bargaining agreement in place since 1886, which was renewed yearly. However, this time the owners insisted on bringing in non-union workers, who would work cheaper. The union would have none of that. So the owners employed “strikebreakers” to convince the workers, mostly by force, that the owner’s way was the right thing to do.

Farley, for some reason, abandoned his union, and started fighting for his bosses. During the riots between the union workers and the strikebreakers, according to various accounts, Farley was shot at, stabbed, hit with bricks, clubs, and baseball bats. And he had the scars to prove it. In the end, the owners won the battle, and the union was marginalized.

One local newspapers reported on the Brooklyn City Railroad Company, “Strikebreakers came from all parts of the country and as a result the railroad companies were able entirely to reorganize their working staffs. When the strikers sought to interfere with operations, 7,500 State troops were sent into the city at the request of the mayor. Cars began operating under military protection on January 22. Two soldiers rode on each car. In one encounter, shots were exchanged among strikers, strikebreakers, and troops; one man was killed and a number wounded.”

With the strikebreaking working in the owner’s favor, they looked kindly on Farley for the work he had done on their behalf. As a reward for his loyal service, the Brooklyn City Railroad Company put Farley in charge of fifteen special officers. And this was how Farley’s strikebreaking career began.

For the next seven years, Farley engaged in strikebreaking throughout the country, almost all of them having to do with the railroad industry. He hired men who were rough and tumble, and some of them carried guns, which they were not afraid to use. Farley paid them more than other agencies did for their strikebreaking activities, and this bought Farley a great bit of loyalty.

Farley himself set an imposing figure, with a Colt .38 revolver in a holster dangling on his right hip, like he was ready for a fight at the O.K. Corral. Farley smoked cigars like he was a chimney. Rumor had it that he smoked 50 cigars a day, usually fat maduro coronas from Havana, Cuba.

According to an article in the United Mine Workers Journal, Farley “Stood before his mercenaries, mostly tough lumpenproletarians from big city slums, ‘with the air of a potentate’, wearing a long Cassock overcoat. And the men looked up at him with gaping mouths.”

In 1902, Farley, having already broken many strikes, opened his own detective agency, which was in direction opposition to the more famous Pinkerton Detective Agency for the strikebreaking jobs. However, the Pinkertons were more diversified, while Farley stuck strictly to strikebreaking.

In 1905, just after the construction of the IRT subway system in New York City, the workers went out on strike. The owner of the IRT was August Belmont, one of the richest men in America. Belmont hired Farley to do the strikebreaking, and Farley and his men immediately went to work.

While the tension intensified between Farley’s men and the strikers, a reporter tried to interview one of the strikebreakers about Belmont’s strategies in ending the strike. The strikebreaker barked at the reporter, “Who the hell is Belmont? Farley is running the show.”

At the successful conclusion of Farley’s work for Belmont, Farley was reportedly paid the kingly sum of $300,000.

Farley’s biggest strikebreaking coup took place not in New York City, but more than 3000 miles away in San Francisco, California. Patrick Calhoun, an official of San Francisco’s United Railroad, contacted Farley in New York and implored Farley to come out west to handle the insurgence of the streetcar Carmen’s Union. On May 5, 1907, after their demands for an 8-hour work day and a salary of $3 a day was turned down by the San Francisco’s United Railroad, the Carmen’s Union went on strike.

On Tuesday morning May 7th, called “Bloody Tuesday,” the strikebreakers and the strikers finally met face to face. A brigade of Farley’s men were locked and loaded, and looking for trouble, as they stood inside six railway cars that had just pulled out of the Turk & Fillmore car barn. The six cars were immediately pelted by bricks and rocks thrown by the strikers. Rather than jump off the cars and engage in hand-to-hand combat, Farley’s men opened fire into the crowd, estimated at 300 people.

An eyewitness said the strikers “had been shot down like dogs.”

The police came in to squelch the riot, and were caught in the crossfire. When the dust cleared, three strikers had been shot dead and another dozen wounded. Two policemen were also shot, but they survived. As a result, the police arrested twelve of Farley’s strikebreakers, and charged them with murder or attempt to commit murder.

Farley and the San Francisco’s United Railroad turned out to be the big winners, when the following day, the union called off their strike and ordered their men back to work.

You would have thought, due to the rough, and sometimes deadly tactics Farley employed, he would have been portrayed in the press as somewhat of a thug and a gangster. However, that was not always the case. After the San Francisco railroad strike of 1907, the San Francisco Chronicle spoke of Farley in a soft tone as “a man who prefers hot blood to water as a beverage.” Newspapers throughout the country took Farley’s part, portraying him as a noble figure, protecting businesses against “communist agitators,” and “foreign bomb throwing activists.”

Farley himself hid behind the cloak of decency, when he claimed, that although he had broken up 50 straight strikes throughout America, in not one instance did he defend businesses that he considered to be in the wrong. Farley stated that, if after he examined the circumstances and determined that the worker were right in their actions, he would turn the strikebreaking job down flat.

However, Jack London, the most prominent journalist of that time, did not think so kindly of Farley. In London’s novel The Iron Heel, London even mentioned Farley by name. London, a left-wing union sympathizer, wrote that Farley, “Was an example of a pernicious trend, men who were ‘private soldiers’ of the capitalist…thoroughly organized and well armed…held in readiness to be hurled in special trains to any part of the country where labor went on strike or was locked out by employers. Strikebreakers were an ominous sign of bad times ahead.”

No matter which way you felt about Farley, one thing was true. He was paid millions by railroads companies, and irregardless of the brutal tactics Farley used, he did his job well.

However, Farley did not live long enough to enjoy all his money. Since his days in the circus, Farley had a fondness for horses. He invested huge sums of money in purchasing horses, both trotters and racers. He kept them in a huge farm he had bought in Plattsburgh, New York.

In 1913, Farley contracted a fatal case of tuberculosis. Farley knew he did not have long to live. Against his doctor’s orders, Farley had a cot placed on the grass of the Yonkers Race Track so that he could watch his horses in competition.

Farley said, “My horses are all I have to live for now.”

On September 11, 1913, a New York Times article said, “James Farley, the noted strike-breaker and horseman, died this morning at 12:10 am at his home in Plattsburgh, New York.”

Farley was 39 years old at the time of his passing.


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