At the height of violence in the Omaha streetcar strike of 1935 Nebraska’s new governor, Robert Leroy (“Roy”) Cochran, called out the National Guard and declared martial law. This brought immediate peace, national attention, and praise from the press and even from labor, which usually dreaded the march of the troops. Not since the late nineteenth century had Nebraska governors resorted to military force to maintain order. Then, according to Ronald Gephart, the primary role of state militias or the National Guard was shifting from fighting Indians to breaking strikes. This shift conformed to the thinking of many businessmen who argued that the main purpose of government was to protect and promote the interests of property. Government officials routinely used state or federal troops as “the prescription applied to industrial disputes” with the usual effect of crushing a strike.
Several things were unusual about the Omaha tram strike of 1935. The Omaha World-Herald said it was the first time the city had had a “military dictator.” Though Cochran employed the traditional response of calling out troops, his subsequent handling of the 1935 strike represented a more balanced approach to resolving a labor-management conflict. He used his brief assumption of power in a city accustomed to anti-unionism to force the tram company to arbitrate. He was adamant that the National Guard was in Omaha only to maintain order and not to take sides.
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Universal newsreel footage showing U.S. troops on the streets of Omaha, Nebraska, in the midst of a streetcar strike, 6/16/1935.