In April 1921 the U.S. Railroad Labor Board approved wide ranging pay cuts for railroad workers, ended wartime work rule provisions, including overtime for Sundays and holidays, and authorized railroads to negotiate new work rules with their employees. When the board approved further paycuts in May and June 1922, some four hundred thousand machinists, blacksmiths, carmen, boilermakers, electricians, and sheet metal workers walked off their jobs on July 1. With 90 percent of the shopcraft workers on strike, carriers were initially forced to curtail service, since locomotives could not be maintained or repaired. But on July 3 the board declared that shopcraft unions no longer represented railroad employees, since their striking members were not working for the railroads, argued that replacement workers had a moral and a legal right to take the place of strikers, and urged railroads to form new workers' organizations. Railroad executives responded by stripping seniority rights from striking shopmen and hiring strikebreakers.

President Warren Harding proposed a settlement that would have preserved both the wage cuts and the shopmen's seniority rights as long as both sides agreed to abide by Railroad Labor Board's decisions in the future, but neither the shopmen nor railroad executives would agree to these terms. Harding then proposed that strikers return to work and submit seniority questions to the board, but the shopmen rejected this as well. On Sept. 1 Attorney General Harry Daugherty obtained a temporary restraining order from James Wilkerson, U.S. district court judge for Northern Illinois, barring striking shopmen or any officers of their unions, of the AFL Railway Employes' Department, or of some 120 system federations from interfering with railroad operations. On Sept. 23 Wilkerson brushed aside an effort to have the order dismissed (U.S. v. Railway Employees' Department of American Federation of Labor et al., 283 F. 479 [1922]) and reissued it as an injunction with nationwide force.

In the meantime Railway Employes' Department president B. M. Jewell was meeting with Baltimore and Ohio Railroad president Daniel Willard and other railroad executives to create a framework for separate settlements on individual railroads. On Sept. 13, unable to finance the strike any longer, the shopmen's strike committee accepted the terms of the so-called Baltimore Agreement that Jewell, Willard, and the others had negotiated, authorizing settlements restoring full seniority to strikers and establishing labor-management committees to resolve other issues. Although 112 railroads made settlements and 225,000 shopmen had their seniority restored, 130 railroads refused to accept the terms of the Baltimore Agreement and 175,000 shopmen ultimately lost their seniority. The strike continued on some roads into 1923 but finally collapsed in 1924; it was officially terminated in 1928.

Read an interview with a former striker