In 1885, Irons joined the Knights of Labor and shortly thereafter founded District Assembly 101, the local that represented the railroad workers who worked for financier Jay Gould's Southwestern Railroad Lines. As a leader of District Assembly 101, Irons played a controversial role in the Great Southwestern Railroad Strike of 1886, a strike that stands out as one of the largest strikes in railroad history during this period and that was noted for the unprecedented unity between black and white workers that it created. An earlier strike in 1885 broke out in response to management efforts to cut wages and benefits as cost-saving measures and was settled with the assistance of the Knights of Labor, which subsequently organized the railroad workers into District Assembly 101. The 1885 strike led to a settlement that included rehiring of the strikers and payment of back wages. However, when the Gould railroad management continued to cut wages and refused to hire members of the Knights of Labor, the workers went on strike again. The resulting strike, which was called on March 1, 1886, included 200,000 workers but was hampered by the lack of support from the skilled trainmen and by the use of sometimes violent direct action. As the strike, which initially enjoyed significant public support, went down to defeat in the wake of procompany court injunctions, Irons received blame for the continuation of strike violence, although there is less proof than was once commonly believed that he had encouraged the violence. Following the strike's defeat, Irons was blacklisted from railroad work and forced to take an assumed name to find any work at all. From 1894 onward, he was supported by G. B. Harris, the secretary of the Social Democratic Party, and enjoyed some success as a Populist orator. As a speaker and activist, Irons promoted the cause of organized labor and of land ownership as the key to independence, and his activism highlighted the close relationship between labor and Populist activists of this period. Irons died in Bruceville, Texas, in 1911.
Susan Roth Breitzer
See also: Granger Movement ; Knights of Labor ; Powderly, Terence V. (1849–1924) ; Texas, Populism in
Allen, Ruth Alice. The Great Southwest Strike. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1942.
Allen, Ruth A. “Irons, Martin.” Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fir07 . Accessed January 7, 2013.
Case, Theresa Ann. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike and Free Labor. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.