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