American History
The Labour Movement

*As America became more industrialised and as it became harder for working-class people to start their own business or farm, working conditions declined.

*Many factory workers were immigrants.  What disadvantages did immigrants face?  (discrimination, don’t understand the language so they are easy to trick, desperate for work, willing to accept low wages) 

*Women and children were also expected to work for lower wages than men, and many did.  Why might families want women and children to work?  (make more money; many families had many children and it took money to raise them all; children could fit in smaller spaces and could be hired for jobs adults could not do)

*The worst factories were called sweatshops, and expected their employees to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Many were dangerous, but there were no workplace safety laws and plenty of workers to replace those killed or injured.

*Many large companies created company towns for their employees, where the company deducted rent and bills at the company store from employees pay checks.  Employees were often paid in scrip, so they could not spend it anywhere else.  Sometimes a working man might only have a couple of cents left after all his deductions, and many went in debt to their company and could not even quit working there until their debts were paid.  Some of them called this ‘wage slavery,’ and began trying to change the system.

*Some factory workers began forming labour unions as early as the 1820s.  What is a labour union?  (workers acting together to get better pay or conditions)  How can they get what they want? (strikes, boycotts, violence)  Collective bargaining was the basis of their power—if most workers belonged to a union, it let them speak with one voice and lent all their strength to that voice. 

*Unions gained new ideas from the philosophy of socialism.  This said that society as a whole should have control of the nation’s wealth and property and that it should be distributed equally. 

*The most famous socialist write was Karl Marx, a German author who wrote The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.  He wanted workers to achieve equality through a violent revolution. 

*Most Americans thought this (and many socialist ideas) threatened American society, which valued hard work, free enterprise, and private property.  The wealthy particularly feared losing their wealth and power, but most Americans did not want what they had earned taken from them.

*In 1869, Uriah Smith Stephens founded the Knights of Labour.  Although not the first labour union, it was the first to have a long-lasting impact.  At first it operated like a secret society (which were very popular in the 1800s) but eventually became more open.  It became widespread because unlike some other early unions it accepted women and many different ethnic groups as members.  Eventually, though, it faded away as some major strikes it led failed and other groups took its place.

*One of these was the American Federation of Labour (AFL) founded by Samuel Gompers.  It was not as open as the Knights of Labour—it only took skilled workers and did not take women and rarely took African-Americans.  However, because it required large dues to join it could provide for its members when they went on strike and it bargained for very specific goals, such as better conditions and pay—the Knights of Labour had not been nearly as well-organised.

*The first major labour strike in the US occurred in 1877.  A major banking firm (Jay Cooke and Company) had failed in 1873, causing many other businesses to fail and unemployment to rise to 14%.  When railroad workers in Martinsburg, West Virginia had their wages cut for the second time in one year they refused to let any more train cars go through the switching yards.  Soon railroad workers in many cities refused to work and even began destroying property.  The National Guard and eventually the US Army were called out and many strikers were shot dead.  Eventually the strikers gave up.

*On 1 May, 1886, thousands of workers protested across the country to demand an 8-hour work day.  Fights broke out in several cities, and on 4 May, an anarchist in Chicago threw a bomb, killing a policeman.  Police began firing into the crowd and some workers began firing back.  Within five minutes, 7 policemen and at least 4 workers were dead, and one policeman (and probably some workers) later died of their wounds. 

*Eight men associated with the rally and with anarchist groups were arrested and seven were given the death sentence (the other got 15 years; two of those condemned to death were later commuted to life sentences).  Because many of the leaders were immigrants, discrimination against immigrants increased and the labour movement came to seem even more un-Americans.  In memory of the Haymarket Riot, many countries now celebrate 1 May as Labour Day.

*In the summer of 1892, Carnegie Steel workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania went on strike.  Carnegie’s business partner, Henry Frick, called in the Pinkertons, who killed several strikers.  On 23 July, an anarchist tried to blow up Frick, but failed.  Although this was not the union’s idea, it was blamed, and they called off the strike before any more violence could take place.

*In 1893, the Pullman Palace Car Company laid off some of its workers and cut wages by 25%, but did not lower prices or rents in the company town.  In 1894 workers tried to negotiate, but three more workers were fired and Pullman closed the factory. 

*In May 1894 the Pullman workers went on strike and turned to Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union.  He convinced railroad workers across the country to go on strike, and by June over 300,000 railroad workers had stopped working.  President Cleveland sent in troops to stop the strike, and Debs was arrested.  In jail he read socialist literature and eventually became a leader of the socialist party in America.  Eventually he founded the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), a workers group that gained a reputation for leading violent strikes.




This page last updated 17 August, 2009.